The Peres-Sharon Theater

There are now two presidential prisoners: Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who cannot leave Ramallah, and Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who cannot leave for Ramallah to deliver an address endorsing a conciliation and a cease-fire before the members of the Palestinian National Council.

There are now two presidential prisoners: Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who cannot leave Ramallah, and Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who cannot leave for Ramallah to deliver an address endorsing a conciliation and a cease-fire before the members of the Palestinian National Council.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who shows all the signs of being interested in a fierce confrontation, rather than in calm (not even a relative calm), is right to handcuff both of them.

Following the government's declaration that Arafat is "irrelevant," all other decisions are merely the consequences of this initial one: If, by definition, Arafat is irrelevant, he has no right to extend his patronage to religious services in a church in Bethlehem; and, by token of the same definition, President Katsav has no right to accept an invitation offered by an "irrelevant" individual. Sharon's reaction was, therefore, predictable and - in his own view - inevitable as well.

However, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is another matter altogether. How can one fathom the reaction of Peres, who openly came out against the initiative that had dropped into Katsav's lap - an initiative that might not have provided any benefit but that certainly would not have caused any harm?

Foreign Ministry officials took pains to point out that they regretted the president having fallen into the "fool's trap" set for him by Arafat, while in an interview, Peres himself stated that he was "opposed to an overabundance of channels of dialogue" - as if the dialogue with the Palestinians at the moment is overburdened with too many open channels, and as if President Katsav has suddenly chosen to poke his nose into this business.

It is truly surprising to see Peres attack Katsav, and using the very same weapon directed against himself. After all, rightists are constantly saying that Peres is "naive" and that he is falling into the trap laid for him by a crafty Arafat. Apparently, Peres is unable to forgo his monopoly of dialogue with the Palestinians.

It would be a different story if the foreign minister's dialogue was serious and promising, at the very least. Unfortunately, however, it is a sterile dialogue, because Peres enters it without any real mandate. When Peres has a conversation with the Palestinian side, both the prime minister and most of the members of the cabinet pray that the talks will prove a failure and they do everything in their power to ensure that their prayers will be answered. Not only do they pray, they also vote.

This government does not have a majority for an initiative that could offer any prospects of succeeding. Peres himself knows that his talks with the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) are meaningless; nonetheless, the foreign minister conducts these talks for one reason - to justify his pathetic presence in a government that, with each passing day, is becoming increasingly incomprehensible and unbearable.

From time to time, therefore, Peres is forced to signal to his frustrated colleagues in the Labor Party and to the members of the "peace camp" that his collaboration with Sharon is paying off. These talks are his personal alibi and not a true exit route from the present mess.

Sharon is indifferent on this issue; in fact, he wants Peres to continue holding meetings and conducting talks with the Palestinians. From Sharon's standpoint, Peres can go on trying because the former will sabotage these efforts anyway - and Sharon will always have the upper hand.

In this manner, Sharon gives the impression of being someone who is prepared for dialogue; however, he can always point out that these talks continually end in a stalemate and he can always claim that he has been acting in good faith. If Peres and the dialogue did not exist, Sharon would have had to invent them because he needs an alibi. In this way, all of the actors know their roles and play them out; and as a result, instead of policies, there is only one large theater with lots of decoration.

Sharon is not afraid of Arafat because deep in his heart, the prime minister knows that the Palestinian leader can always be relied on, just as Arafat knows that Sharon can always be relied on. These two live off each other's mistakes. They reinforce each other in the opinion polls of their respective constituencies.

What does frighten Sharon, however, is any prospect or sign of calm or moderation. If, unfortunately, the situation were to calm down and stabilize, Sharon would have to return to the negotiating table and, in the wake of pressure from within and without, he would have to raise serious proposals for an agreement. This moment terrifies Sharon and he wants to put it off for as long as he possibly can.

None of this is new because Sharon is the still the same old Sharon. Many years ago, in the mid-1980s, Israel banished Dr. Mubarak Awad (a Palestinian and an American citizen who was a professional psychologist) from the territories. He was expelled for having established the Center for the Study of Non-Violence in East Jerusalem. Dr. Awad proposed to his Palestinian brothers and sisters that they abandon terrorism and make use of non-violent tactics to fight the Israeli occupation, seeing himself as a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Even then, Sharon and his colleagues understood that the terrorists and those who give them asylum are not the real enemies. Instead, the real enemies are the moderates, with their moderate approach being one grand headache. You fight terrorists - a pretty simple operation - but you must talk with moderates, and this is a very tricky, if not dangerous, business.

This is why the Israeli government is petrified today by Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, head of the Palestinian Authority office of Jerusalem Affairs, who symbolizes a more sober-minded, more thoughtful approach that is also non-violent. To what lengths has the government not gone in order to humiliate him, to attack him verbally and to push him off to the sidelines in the hope that he will join forces with the proponents of a violent struggle against Israel? If the government could find some way of banishing him as well, it would gladly seize the opportunity.

It is not just the "perpetual moderates" who frighten the Israeli government. It is also those who might, unfortunately, become gradually more moderate. Thus, the government treats any signs of increased moderation with scorn. Over the past few weeks, there have been clear signs of the development of a more moderate trend; however, Sharon, Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, Education Minister Limor Livnat and National Infrastructures Minister Avigdor Lieberman will dismiss these signs as meaningless and will always find some expert - one who is hoping for a career promotion within the military hierarchy - from the "defense establishment" to back them up.

Thus, all the necessary and sufficient conditions remain for the next terrorist attack. The atmosphere is so murky and anyone such as the Israeli president who, despite everything, tries to improve things somewhat will only be rewarded by being placed under house arrest.

MK Yossi Sarid (Meretz) is the Knesset Opposition leader