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Ariel Sharon was in no hurry to read the American "road map" for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and he had good reason. The document handed to him in Washington is searing proof of the failure of Israeli diplomacy. Despite the close coordination, the secret envoys and the mutual flattery, the administration dropped an surprise on Israel. Jerusalem knew about the preparations for the map. But its content was a secret up to the last minute.

The whole thing, of course, can be dismissed as usual, by saying it's an empty shell. It's pretty certain the map won't be implemented and will join the shelved Clinton, Mitchell, Tenet and Zinni plans. Its real importance is the political legitimacy it gives both sides. The new plan was approved by the White House, and is not the product of "peaceniks" from the State Department, who have yet to finish burying Oslo. As an expression of current U.S. policy, it enables an observer to evaluate Israeli achievements during two years of intifada, and especially the results of Sharon's refusal to negotiate under fire.

Sharon's main success was halting the dialogue on a final status agreement that Barak and Clinton tried to reach with Arafat. Now, the talk is of a graduated peace process, with political and security reforms on the Palestinian side. Israel was rescued from another agreement with the despised Arafat. But the administration rejected Sharon's demand for a "long-term" interim agreement and instead committed itself to a Palestinian state and an end to the occupation within three years. That's the prize the Palestinians get for keeping up their intifada.

But it's not an automatic prize, because progress from stage to stage is conditional on the implementation of the tasks at each level - by both sides. Sharon is grasping at that sliver and fighting to save it. But it's not an easy fight. The U.S. wants to give supervision on the ground to an international body including the Europeans and the UN, which are hostile to Israel. Presumably, they'll pressure for quick progress and will ignore Palestinian violations.

Sharon tends to say that there are no free lunches in relations between states. The road map is an expensive dinner and difficult to digest for him. Israel wants reforms and Arafat gone, and is required in return to absorb the terror attacks without retaliating. The U.S. accepted the Palestinian argument that as long as the IDF is in their cities, they can't fight terror. The first stage frees the Palestinians from the need to take real action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It's enough for them to declare their opposition to the violence, and to unify their security forces. Israel, on the other hand, is required to restrain its military responses and return to the Oslo model of "security cooperation."

Sharon is being told to pay for getting rid of Arafat with the settlements, the apples of his eye. Oslo postponed dealing with the settlements to the end of the road. The road map puts them square in the middle of the interim stages: First the illegal outposts and an end to the land grabs, followed by a complete freeze on construction, and for dessert, "additional action," a heavy hint about evacuating settlements. Even the "third redeployment" of Oslo - meaning further withdrawals in the West Bank - is back.

There are some ridiculous phrases in the American document. Its authors wanted to satisfy both sides, so they left some escape hatches for the two sides. Sharon will respond, as usual, with a "yes, but ... " and hope the Palestinians evade fulfilling their part. The plan expects Arafat to send himself into early retirement within a few weeks of its approval. It's difficult to believe he'll adopt it.

The distance between the situation on the ground and the Washington papers loomed bigger than ever this week. Terror rages, the occupation deepens, and the outposts remain on the hilltops. But despite Israel's firm stance and its tactical successes against terror, Jerusalem's position has been eroded, and its dependency on the U.S. has grown, as proved by Sharon's panicky request for financial aid from the U.S. That's important to remember when the time comes for the political bill.