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It is difficult to believe that a veteran combat fighter like Ariel Sharon really takes seriously the entire matter of "dismantling the terrorist infrastructure." Would the prime minister of sovereign Israel dare send Israeli troops door-to-door through the settlements to collect weapons from the right-wing extremists among the settlers, who daily harass and abuse their Palestinian neighbors?

The dozens of new and renewed outposts set up since the government adopted the road map, which are supposed to be removed "immediately" according to the road map, show that even a prime minister as strong as Sharon doesn't dare challenge the extremists. Sharon knows how to assess the chances that under the political conditions and mood in the territories, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will be able to fulfill the article in the road map referring to "dismantling the terrorist infrastructure." CIA director George Tenet, who fathered the idea, has admitted in closed forums that the entire matter of "infrastructure" is somewhere between problematic and impossible.

One doesn't need to be the chief of the CIA or head of the Shin Bet to understand what Abu Mazen and his security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, can expect on the day they order their forces to charge Hamas activists. Because of far more modest concerns, Sharon is avoiding sending the IDF to charge the darlings of his comrades in the government: Avigdor Lieberman, Benny Elon, Effi Eitam and perhaps Benjamin Netanyahu. In Sharon's case, the U.S. and even ex-Meretz politicians like Avraham Poraz (who has compared Hamas to the settlers in the outposts) show understanding for the prime minister's political constraints. They allow him to enjoy the benefit of the doubt, and assume he wants to dismantle all the settlements set up since March 2001 and freeze construction in all the others, as required by the road map, but simply can't do it.

The attitude toward Abu Mazen's constraints, and the place they get on Sharon's agenda, can serve as an effective litmus test regarding Sharon's intentions. A leader who regards a neighboring leader as a partner does not impose decrees that the putative partner cannot execute. If Sharon were interested in a political arrangement, he would have identified Abu Mazen as a partner and tried to strengthen his position. The praise the prime minister showers on President Bush, whose popularity has been eroded, proves Sharon knows how to do it. On the other hand, Sharon and Bush are turning Abu Mazen into an Israeli collaborator and American puppet in the eyes of Abbas' own public.

The government has many and various instruments it can use - whether by what it does, or doesn't do - to help the Palestinian government win popular support. The decision to extend the closure orders against the PLO offices in East Jerusalem - in violation of the spirit of the road map - also sends a clear message to the Palestinians that the only merchandise Israel is ready to supply Abu Mazen is its agreement to enjoy the ongoing cease-fire. If that is the only goods Israel would have offered the governments of Egypt and Jordan, it is doubtful Anwar Sadat and King Hussein, who were much more powerful leaders than Abu Mazen, would have ever signed peace agreements.

Hopefully, the Palestinians will cease regarding the Israelis, and not necessarily this or that Israeli government, as enemy neighbors. However there's no symmetry between the occupied and the occupier, who continues expropriating lands and denying basic human rights. Sharon's refusal to even consider a relatively modest request by Abu Mazen for the release of veteran prisoners shows the prime minister continues to regard the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian public as an enemy.

The government decision to declare the PA "a terror-supporting entity," in the early days of Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002, remains in effect. That definition has ramifications for the prime minister's attitude toward Abu Mazen and influences the attitude of the lowly guard at the checkpoint toward the elderly Palestinian trying to visit his grandson across the street. The future is in the diskette. If we don't quickly change the software from enemy to partner, the entire operating system will crash upon us all.