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Only two days before President Bush announced he had decided to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East, the administration was inclining toward a decision to bring home its cease-fire envoy, Anthony Zinni. Jerusalem regards that as confirmation that the raised American profile does not mean there has been a strategic change in the U.S. attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One prevailing view is that Bush's demand that Israel withdraw from the Palestinian cities was meant to throw a bit of sand into the eyes of the nervous Europeans and reduce domestic criticism of American indifference to the terrible images from the battlefield. Powell's mission is certainly meant to make sure the troubles on the northern border don't drag the entire region into war.

All this might explain the prime minister's smug response to the series of American initiatives - from the UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire through the president's public statements about a withdrawal from the cities. So what? Ariel Sharon has been through this in the past. Tenet and Zinni came and went and nothing changed - Powell will come and go and Israel will go on as it pleases. And again we'll hear from Washington the old refrain about "we did all we could but we can't want peace more than the sides directly involved in the conflict."

Sharon has a lot of experience sticking it to the Americans. He led the Likud camp that opposed Bush Senior's peace initiative. During the first intifada, when then secretary of state James Baker proposed negotiations with Palestinians from the territories, Sharon greeted Baker on each visit with new settlements. At the end of 1998, after giving Benjamin Netanyahu permission to sign the Clinton-sponsored Wye River accords, then-foreign minister Sharon called on the settlers to hurry up and capture every available hill in the territories. Ultimately, whether it was Palestinian terror, Arafat's mistakes, or domestic politics, the Americans were sent to the peanut gallery.

During his visit to Israel a few weeks ago, Richard Haas, director of policy planning in the State Department, repeated his old theory that the sides "still haven't ripened" for American involvement. There were those who tried to convince him that the longer the ripening process takes, the less central authority will exist in the Palestinian areas. At a meeting of U.S. ambassadors to the Middle East, held last month in Washington, one of the diplomats said that the Israeli-Palestinian car doesn't have a neutral gear. If it's not moving forward, it will move backward, he said. But the president decided to adopt the conservative position posed by his vice president, Dick Cheney, and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who believe American involvement should be limited to making sure the fire doesn't get completely out of control.

Bush's latest steps, and statements made by senior officials in the administration, signal they have not come to the conclusion that the Israeli invasions of the West Bank's cities has written new rules for the local game. Presumably, the American consulate in Jerusalem has been reporting to Washington that there's nobody left on the Palestinian side to "implement the Tenet agreement." The fact that nonetheless the president is sending Powell to talk with a virtual Palestinian Authority about a cease-fire first, should be terrifically good news for the "transfer" ideologues among us. They should be praying that Arafat gives in to American pressure, which of course won't be accompanied by any "political prize." The rest is written on the wall: The IDF retreats from the West Bank towns, the terrorists resume sowing death in Israel, the IDF goes back into the West Bank, and Powell goes home shame-faced.

America's test this time goes far beyond the power of declarations or the political level of a visiting VIP. The great superpower and friend of Israel won't be doing enough if its secretary of state visits Jerusalem and asks Israel to withdraw from the territories. Nor would the 10 American observers that Washington proposed to post here (Sharon agreed only to six) before the current round of warfare broke out, be of any help.

To prevent the conflict escalating into the destabilization of the entire region, the U.S. must make sure that the IDF is not replaced by chaos. In the best of cases, in which the Palestinians agree to lend a hand to the suppression of the terrorists, they will need massive external support and firm guarantees of an end to the occupation. If Powell doesn't bring those two elements, he might as well stay home.