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With all due respect to the well-known phrase - "the importance of the meeting was the very fact it took place - which is used to describe diplomatic encounters that produce little significant result, there is room to wonder whether there was any point to the prime minister's conferring last week with Yasser Arafat's top advisers.

The question deserves consideration. At first glance it would appear that Ariel Sharon's readiness to talk with Abu-Mazen, Abu Ala and Muhammad Rashid should be praised and encouraged. But, given current circumstances, such mechanical praise is not warranted.

Sharon's true intention in inviting them for the conferral has to be analyzed: Was this invitation consistent with the policy that he is following toward the Palestinian Authority?

Sharon's true intentions are difficult to fathom. He has set the goal of rendering Arafat irrelevant; and yet he holds direct talks with the Palestinian leader's closest aides. These aides come to Jerusalem with Arafat's blessing, and then rush back to report to him on the results of the meeting.

Sharon tells Yedioth Aharonoth that he will recommend to President Bush that "Arafat should be ignored;" his message to the president will be that "no meetings should be held with Arafat, nor should delegations be sent to meet him." Yet Sharon himself is holding contacts with the PA leadership, and welcoming delegations which come to him with Arafat's blessing.

Sharon says that he does not rule out meetings with Palestinian leaders other than Arafat; yet he objects to President Katsav or Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg meeting with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Sharon insists that meetings which he, or Shimon Peres or Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, holds with Arafat's associates are designed exclusively to attain a cease-fire; yet he opposes the cease-fire (hudnah) plan involving President Katsav.

Sharon tells Ma'ariv that he is "making an effort to expose what the Palestinian Authority and its leader are really doing - sponsoring terror. "Any conferral of legitimacy to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority weakens the war against terror." So such statements suggest that Sharon doesn't distinguish between Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. But if this is the case, then how can Sharon's willingness to confer with Arafat's three aides be explained, given that they represent the PA leadership?

By upholding such self-contradictory positions, Sharon reveals that he is not so different from Arafat. In the morning, the Palestinian leader sends a positive spirited letter to President Bush, in which he pledges to work for the cessation of violence, and then in the evening delivers a speech which calls on young Palestinians to carry out suicide strikes in order to liberate Jerusalem. Somewhat similarly, Sharon is liable to come across as a leader who says he wants to lessen tensions and violence, and then at the same time approves Israel Defense Forces operations whose practical result is to forestall the realization of calm on the ground. Clearly, from Sharon's point of view, there is clear justification for the authorization which he gives to the IDF to strike against Palestinian targets; however, by the same token, Arafat finds arguments for his efforts to explain atrocities committed by terror groups.

All told, Sharon's behavior leaves room for suspicion that the invitation to Arafat's aides wasn't a genuine signal of willingness to talk. Instead, the purpose was to derail the Peres-Abu Ala discussions; or to score points in the eyes of the U.S. president, ahead of Sharon's scheduled meeting with Bush in Washington this week.

Sharon will not be able to avoid formulating a cohesive position on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Up to now, he has followed an inconsistent, zig-zag policy, either because he himself is trying to make up his mind, or because he is trying to conceal his ultimate purpose. But this zig-zag chapter has ended: after a year in office, he is chiefly responsible for the reality which has taken shape, and the public justifiably demands a solution to the crisis.

Sharon cannot ignore the worrisome signs: the tragic rise in Israeli victims of terror, the worsening economic woes, the voices of dissent among officers from elite IDF units, the lack of effectiveness of proposals offered by the IDF and other establishment officials to upgrade security, and the deficiency of military solutions to Palestinian terror.

The situation is far worse on the Palestinian side, but anyone who seeks to take consolation in this fact is kidding himself. This is a dispute which will be resolved by compromise, and not the submission and defeat of one side. Up to now Sharon has been content to do nothing more than crisis management; with the crisis spinning out of control, the time has come for a leader to make real decisions.