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A sensational psychological-political diagnosis was made in the prime minister's entourage last week, while Ariel Sharon was on an official visit to Rome. A "senior source" stated that the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), "wasn't and will not be a puppet or a rag doll for Yasser Arafat."

This utterance implies that Abu Ala's predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), was, indeed, a rag doll. Let us ignore for a moment the profound political wisdom reflected in this statement - Ariel Sharon is insulting the man with whom he intended to sign a political deal only four months ago, and who, according to intelligence evaluations, may once again take Abu Ala's place if the latter tires of, or is removed from, his job. This statement is no less reckless than the decision to send Israeli rescue and investigative teams to Istanbul, to trample on Turkey's dignity and undermine faith in its government's ability to handle the terrorist attacks on two synagogues. It is not the prime minister's wisdom that is discussed here, but his intentions.

Sharon does not speak out for no reason. When he sees fit to contrast Abu Ala with Abu Mazen, he is striving to create a certain impression in public opinion. He is preparing the ground for a move that will appear justified on the basis of his learned diagnoses. To achieve the end he wishes at a given moment, he does not refrain from denying positions he once espoused and even abandoning allies. Today Sharon is interested in elevating Abu Ala's status, therefore, he can mock Abu Mazen's leadership skills and present his successor as "a very independent man." He assumes the pictures of brotherhood that immortalized his meetings with Abu Mazen have been forgotten, that the compliments he showered on him have evaporated, and that the solemn evaluations he and his aides provided about the qualities of the previous Palestinian prime minister and about the challenge to Arafat in his very election, have faded away. Sharon also wishes to erase from memory his former reservations about Abu Ala's candidacy for the Palestinian premiership.

Now Sharon sees fit to give Abu Ala a big credit. The value of his statements today is the same as those of yesterday - he is a complete cynic in his use of language. Words serve him according to his changing needs. Since his considerations are mainly tactical, he does not hesitate to say one thing and then the complete opposite. Since he is an uninhibited man, he does not refrain from exaggerating either his flattery or insults, assuming that this advances his purpose.

Since this is Sharon's attitude to the word, it would be better to take a suspicious view of the tidings coming directly from him and those around him these days. This includes his readiness to take unilateral steps toward the Palestinians, the plans being formulated in his office to alleviate the suffering of the population in the territories, his intention to "gather-in" settlements to make it easier for the Israel Defense Forces, and even to evacuate a few.

On the face of it, the prime minister should be commended and encouraged for the apparent change in his approach. On the face of it, the positive halo he sets above Abu Ala's head is meant to justify his willingness to make goodwill gestures toward Qureia, something of which he deprived Abu Mazen. But experience compels us to judge his statements carefully. When Abu Mazen was elected prime minister, Sharon and his men also showered him with promises and declared they would take his plight into consideration. In practice, they were tight-fisted and short-sighted in their dealings with him, which the chief of staff now regrets, retroactively.

Therefore, when Sharon sings the praises of Abu Ala and creates a media flurry intended to plant the impression that there is a real change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinian Authority, a reminder is required - Sharon must be judged by his actions, not his words.