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Under the current circumstances, when the Israel Defense Forces controls the cities and the roads and demolishes Palestinian police stations whenever it feels like it, the test of results on the ground is irrelevant. On one hand, government spokesmen claim that the dramatic drop in attacks on Israeli civilians proves nothing. They claim it is purely the result of the massive presence of the security forces in the territories, the curfews, and the more or less pinpointed preventive assassinations. The prime minister's "seven days of quiet" has been replaced by the defense minister's "intelligence alerts" test. In essence, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has decided that the violent friction will continue as long as the intelligence services report that extremist elements are planning attacks.

In accordance with the holy educational principle of "terror doesn't pay," the government, as long as it has not declared "victory," has narrowed the possibility of dialogue with the Palestinians to the terms of surrender. According to that same principle, the political negotiations have to wait until the veteran, corrupt leadership gives way to democratic, noncorrupt forces, and in particular, to a new leadership that had nothing to do with the intifada in general or with Yasser Arafat in particular.

Therefore, there government sees no value in the Fatah leadership's declaration of a unilateral cease-fire. That explains the apathy on the Israeli side that greeted the recent declarations against violence by Arafat representatives, led by Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh and National Security Advisor Mohammed Dahlan.

This is not a guess or a situation assessment. The tracks of Israel's blanket opposition to Fatah can be found in the charge sheet presented against Marwan Barghouti. That document, which was formulated at the highest political and legal levels, accuses Barghouti of being subordinate to Arafat, whom the charge sheet says heads "the following terrorist organizations: Fatah, the Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Ben-Eliezer, the Labor Party's leader, told CNN in a weekend interview that the peace process now awaits a worthy Palestinian partner. Shimon Peres, Arafat's partner as a Nobel Peace laureate, added yesterday in Johannesburg that the new European peace plan will also have to be put in the freezer until "the creation of a Palestinian partner." On the other hand, it took massive American pressure for Sharon to approve the convening of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the forum authorized, according to the spirit of the "reforms," to empty the Palestinian Authority cabinet of all the Arafat yes-men in favor of more appropriate people.

And just who are those people? Presumably, the same intelligence services that report to the defense minister about every new explosives belt are reporting on the earthquake taking place around Arafat. Military Intelligence and Shin Bet security service papers surely tell Sharon that there is no chance that the Palestinian public or its institutions will choose someone opposed to the intifada. Abu Mazen, who has been sitting on the fence, has reached the conclusion that he can make the leap from there to the prime minister's office only if he stands on the shoulders of Barghouti, the Fatah leader in the West Bank. That is the reason for the recent rapprochement between the two - fostered by Dahlan, who always knows how to identify the source of power, and the Egyptians, who have long since spotted Barghouti's popularity in the Palestinian street. That popularity is expected to rise dramatically during his trial, and his friends are now telling him not to make do with supporting Abu Mazen, but to become the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.

If Sharon is truly interested in replacing Arafat, or at least in dwarfing him, he has to choose between Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti or Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin. The first, who was one of the pioneers on the Palestinian side in meeting with Israelis, is the one who is ordering his colleagues to cease the violence and offer Israel a peace agreement based on the Saudi initiative. The other supports suicide bombings and opposes recognition of the state of Israel. It is the choice between a way to end occupation in peace or a decision to be victorious unto death.