Despite Arafat and Mofaz

Shimon Peres is very angry with the leader of the Opposition, Yossi Sarid. Sarid never wastes an opportunity to needle the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for the cover-up he is providing for the Settlement Prize laureate.

Shimon Peres is very angry with the leader of the Opposition, Yossi Sarid. Sarid never wastes an opportunity to needle the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for the cover-up he is providing for the Settlement Prize laureate. In fact, when Peres manages to put his ego aside, he prefers the left to vilify him rather than crowning him. He knows what a meal Benjamin Netanyahu would have made of Meretz's words of praise for Sharon's foreign minister on his contribution to the formula for the CIA observers. What would Tzachi Hanegbi have said if Yossi Beilin had applauded his political father for the dovish assessment of the situation that the Foreign Ministry placed before the prime minister?

It's not hard to imagine the wording on the posters the Yesha council of settlements people would have waved at the Likud Central Committee, if they knew that Sharon had really promised Peres a day would come when he would agree to limit the "natural growth" in the settlements entirely to their built-up area.

There's no need to feel sorry for Peres. Despite the insults he receives from the left and the shouts of abuse from the right, the man is 78 years old (in another three weeks), flies at the drop of a hat to Peru and is not prepared to hear about leaving the government.

Nevertheless, the decisive moment is fast approaching for the only relevant representative of the peace camp who still remains in the government. The Foreign Ministry's assessment of the situation - and what Peres said last week in Labor's Sareinu (Our Ministers) forum concerning the need to return the glory of the "peace process" to its former days - revealed a little of the diplomatic process Peres is cooking up behind the scenes. He started off by convincing Sharon that there is nothing more natural than the presence in the field of an organization whose members regularly participate in the security talks. Now the foreign minister is trying to lead the prime minister, through the CIA observers, straight from Tenet's security report to the diplomatic chapter in Mitchell's recommendations.

There is no need to envy Peres. Sharon has been shown to be a great expert in "Yes, but" wisdom. He has seemingly adopted all the reports, not even rejecting the proposal to open up the territories to foreign observers, an idea which is not popular in his circles. All this is aimed at helping Arafat to isolate the rejectionist organizations as well as show the Palestinian street that the Intifada victims did not die in vain.

However, until this very day, Sharon has not given up his demand for seven consecutive days of total quiet in the territories. He has not given Arafat the satisfaction of hearing the father of the settlements publicly announcing he is indeed ready to impose restrictions on the settlements.

At the moment, Sharon is haggling with Peres and with the Americans over the observers' mandate. He asks for the CIA people to supervise the collection of arms and the arrest of those on the wanted list, not just make do with monitoring violent events and revealing cases of incitement.

A decade ago Yitzhak Shamir made Israel's participation in an international conference dependent on attendance by all the neighboring states. He gambled on Hafez Assad's refusal and in the end found himself at the Madrid conference. From there, it was a short route to the opposition.

Peres is showing Colin Powell's people how to skip lightly between the mines that Sharon is laying at their feet. His guiding principle is to walk hand-in-hand with Sharon, never without him and never against him.

Unfortunately, whenever it seems that at long last Peres has the upper hand, Arafat starts shooting, Mofaz reacts, Arafat hits, Mofaz reacts again, and the whole vicious circle goes round and round. Or the White House, that had almost decided to jump into the water, once again gets cold feet. Then Sharon once again reads in the surveys that the public is satisfied with the prime minister's functioning, and that old American saying is once again recalled, "If it ain't broke - don't fix it."

Peres cannot serve as Sharon's defense against the world's anger, and he certainly cannot allow the spread of the growing belief among the Arabs that all Israelis are the same. Next week will mark half a year since the day when the citizens of Israel gave Sharon a mandate to bring peace and security. The Foreign Ministry's assessment of the situation is that the key to achieving that goal lies in a return to the negotiating process. This would also be an appropriate date for Shimon Peres to make his own personal assessment of the situation.