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The practical answer, and not the one determined by values, to the question of whether Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is able to, or will want to, accept the Israeli demand for a cease-fire is concealed behind a Jewish question: What are the chances that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is able to, or will want to, put an end to the occupation?

It is only that the greater the pain, the harder it is to step into the shoes of the opponent. The deeper the despair, the more complicated it becomes to analyze how things look from the other side. It is much easier to adopt the prime minister's diagnosis that Arafat is a pathological liar and to wait patiently for a Palestinian leader who is nicer.

It is also possible to take pride in the statement by the chief of staff that "despite the pain, the Palestinians have found that they are facing extraordinary staunchness on the part of the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli public," and to forbid our children to go anywhere near a bus.

One of the formulators of the Mitchell Plan proposes an interesting exercise for the sake of understanding the essence of the situation, as it appears from the perspective of a neutral observer (or one that is as neutral as possible: "Javier Solana, the diplomatic coordinator for the European Union, has described the seven days of quiet idea as idiotic," noted this individual, adding, "I don't think I would use that word. If the seven days idea more or less symbolizes Sharon's political need to demonstrate Palestinian seriousness to a skeptical constituency, then it is understandable (if impractical). If, on the other hand, it represents a decision to stop cold a process that would lead to a settlement freeze, it is also understandable, but highly destructive."

The observer continued: "It is only idiotic if the prime minister truly wants to get rolling quickly on Tenet-Mitchell." He went on to explain: "Tenet's work plan and Mitchell's recommendations are intended to create, over time, a new dynamic and new facts, nothwithstanding inevitable incidents and setbacks. To place pre-conditions on implementation is idiotic only if one desperately wants the implementation to take place."

The observer comments diplomatically that he regrets that he does not know how to read minds. However, it seems obvious that he too, like anyone with eyes in his or her head, does not think that Sharon is an idiot. If the prime minister was seriously interested in advancing the initiative in the two documents, he would not have plunged a stopper deep into their necks. Apparently, Sharon realizes that the moment the Tenet report pins Arafat to him, it will strip him of the warm political blanket of his unity government. The moment the Mitchell Plan forces him to freeze the settlements, it will expose his ideological commitment to continued Israeli control in most of the territories.

Sharon and Arafat are clinging to each other like a pair of exhausted boxers, neither of whom can win the fight. Neither of them is prepared to give up the unity in the ranks of his own respective camp as long as he cannot brandish any real achievement, at no ideological cost. Both of them are feeding public opinion with lack of trust in the neighbor and both believe that a few terror attacks here or a few assassinations there will break the foe.

Arafat thinks it is possible to talk a little and kill a little. Sharon thinks it is possible to talk a little and occupy a little. Both of them know that the conflict is not being resolved and will not be resolved in a military fashion, yet they continue to gamble on the advantage of their respective side's endurance.

Up until the Oslo agreement, the Israeli and the Palestinian cemeteries were filled with casualties of war; then came the peace casualties; and now, it is the turn of the victims of toughness. It may have been possible to take comfort in this being a necessary price to pay for the sake of the peace and security of future generations.

However, the only solution - two states for two peoples - will not change, even in a hundred years' time and even after thousands of people are killed.

No, Sharon is not an idiot, nor is Arafat. The idiots are all of us, Israelis and Palestinians who are allowing two conservative individuals, stuck in the past, to be tough at the expense of our children.