Sink or Swim

Three weeks ago, the reckoning in Israel was that on November 4 there would be a change in the Palestinian Authority: Either Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) would manage to put together a new government that would have the armed forces in the West Bank and Gaza completely subordinate to its authority; or he would resign and leave the affairs of the PA in the hands of Yasser Arafat alone.

1. Starting over

Three weeks ago, the reckoning in Israel was that on November 4 there would be a change in the Palestinian Authority: Either Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) would manage to put together a new government that would have the armed forces in the West Bank and Gaza completely subordinate to its authority; or he would resign and leave the affairs of the PA in the hands of Yasser Arafat alone.

If the first scenario took place, said senior officials at the center of policy-making toward the Palestinians, a process would ensue, leading to a cease-fire and a basic, fundamental change in the status of the conflict. If the second scenario materialized, the PA would totally collapse, because Arafat would cause the situation to deteriorate and, with his own hands, dig his grave as a legitimate leader. In the background, it should be remembered that there were reports about Arafat's declining health, which breathed hope into the hearts of the Israeli leadership.

This week, said a senior official - with a certain degree of amazement even though he is in decision-making circles - Arafat has recovered from his illness. "No matter what happens," he doesn't foresee an impending natural death, even though he very much hopes for it. There is nothing on the agenda right now that would cause the departure of Arafat in other ways, as Ariel Sharon declared to guests from the European Parliament last week (we have no intention of killing him, said Sharon).

That isn't the only hope that was crushed. November 4 passed without any geological fault line cracking open in Palestinian politics: Abu Ala indeed appears to be the next Palestinian prime minister, but with compromises that leave vague the division of security authority between him and Arafat. As things appeared yesterday, Arafat is not conceding his control over the Palestinian armed forces; Abu Ala is a prime minister who cannot appoint an interior minister and does not intend to disarm the terror organizations. It seems that what was, is what will be.

But the surface will change. As opposed to Abu Mazen, who first reached an agreement with Israel and the U.S. about a cease-fire and then tried - and failed - to enlist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Abu Ala is trying the opposite approach. First he's seeking an internal Palestinian agreement for a cessation of attacks against Israel and its residents, and then he will go to Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz to propose, in the name of the PA, a general cease-fire in exchange for a total cessation of all violent activity, including arrests, in Palestinian areas.

As of now, Israel appears to be tilting toward accepting the route proposed by Abu Ala - but with gritted teeth, because there is a total lack of faith in the feasibility of the move. But for image reasons, it is becoming official policy.

Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon's criticism last week of the government's approach to Abu Mazen turned into a critical mass that forced Sharon and Mofaz to appear to be more attentive to the needs of the Palestinian population and the political needs of the Palestinian leadership. Ya'alon's comments were added to the displays of displeasure by the U.S. administration with some elements of Israel's approach to the Palestinians: the fence, new construction in the settlements, the proliferation of illegal outposts - which are not removed - and other issues) and the political pressure on Jerusalem from Europe. The government cannot remain indifferent to the pincer movement, domestic and foreign, and it is therefore changing tactics in its policy.

2. Face-lift

Sharon is expected to confirm a cease-fire if Abu Ala brings one to him after reaching an agreement with the terror organizations, even though it won't include a credible commitment to immediately undertake dismantling the terror infrastructure. Thus, he will drop the sour approach with which he greeted Abu Ala when he first heard that Qureia would replace Mahmoud Abbas. Sharon posted a condition for meeting Abu Ala - tangible proof he is seriously undertaking a disarming of the terror infrastructure.

That demand has been reduced to an expression of hope. In the last two weeks, there have been relatively frequent contacts with representatives of the PA without that precondition being fulfilled. Indeed, Sharon, Mofaz and Shalom appear to be competing over the honor of meeting with the Palestinian prime minister and his ministers - when there's more than an emergency government.

The cease-fire, if established, will be presented as a security agreement only to silence opposition on the right wing of the government, which is expected to argue that it was achieved under fire. The government will accompany the security agreement with steps aimed at improving economic conditions in the territories and demonstrating goodwill and understanding of the population's distress. These developments, if indeed they take place, will not, however, result in political returns, because Israel will refuse to undertake any political negotiations without dismantling the terrorist infrastructure - and the way it looks now, Abu Ala does not appear ready to comply with Israeli and American expectations in this matter.

In other words, the two sides are going to make changes in the shape of their approaches that might bring about a temporary calm in the armed conflict. They continue to be deterred from touching the essential elements of the conflict and therefore they are dooming the very understandings under discussion to a quick failure. From an Israeli perspective, as long as the Palestinians are not ready to disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other armed factions, there is no chance the cease-fire will last very long. From the Palestinian perspective, as long as there is no Israeli intention to dismantle settlements and to present an acceptable political plan, there is no way to dull the urge for revenge and fury that is the driving factor behind the terrorists. Moreover, the Israeli leadership continues to believe that as long as Arafat is alive and active, the conflict is going to poison relations between the peoples, because the Palestinian leader does not accept the existence of the Zionist state and regards terror as a legitimate means to achieve his goals.

The most up-to-date scenario, therefore, is: If Abu Ala forms a government and proposes a cease-fire, there will be a few weeks of quiet during which the two sides will avoid violent actions. Israel will continue to argue that the Palestinian terror groups are using the lull to rearm and will warn the U.S. to that effect. The Palestinians will continue to argue that Israel is strengthening the settlements. Abu Ala will explain that he is using his own methods to domesticate the terror organizations and that there is no need for civil war. Arafat will continue to stir the pot. The temporary truce will pop in an inevitable terror attack, whether it is initiated by the leadership of a terrorist organization or by a local cell.

3. The deal of his life

The brouhaha caused last week by the chief of staff's criticism of the government's approach to the PA drowned out an important comment he made regarding the prisoner exchange deal that will be brought to the government the day after tomorrow. Ya'alon said that Mustafa Dirani does not have a clue where Ron Arad is located and that Iranian President Khamani doesn't care about the fate of Dirani, Arad's original jailer in Lebanon. So the chief of staff thinks that holding onto Dirani and Abdel Karim Obeid does not make finding the whereabouts of Ron Arad any easier. Ya'alon sounded like someone who supports the return of the three soldiers and Elhanan Tannenbaum as long as prisoners who killed Israelis are not released in exchange.

The prisoner exchange deal is apparently comprised of the following principles: for three soldiers, Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Suweid, as well as Elhanan Tannenbaum, a civilian, Israel will free Jordanian, Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. The number of freed prisoners will reach 400, including Dirani and Obeid. There will not be any Palestinians with "blood on their hands," but there will be Lebanese who killed Israelis.

The prime minister made a decision that he defines as moral: to save a living Israeli and end the tragedy of the families of the soldiers. The circumstances of Tannenbaum's capture are meaningless in his eyes compared to the opportunity to pry him out of Hezbollah's grip. If the government does not accept his position, the negotiations will be stalemated and not implemented. He expects the government to accept his position and is expected to speak with recalcitrant ministers over the weekend to persuade them he is right.

Effi Eitam is among the ministers who reject the deal. He says it is not a prisoner exchange, but a surrender to a kidnapping. He believes Israeli agreement will create a precedent that will boomerang because it will become an operational model for terror organizations in the future. He is also worried about the negative influence the Hezbollah extortion will have on the fighting spirit of soldiers in the army, who might prefer to fall into Hezbollah hands rather than stick to a mission and risk their lives.

Some of the ministers who oppose the deal reckon Sharon will manage to have his way. Maybe that's a convenient position for them to assume: oppose the deal while being certain it will be authorized.

One of those who spoke vehemently against the deal if it does not include information about Ron Arad was Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Yesterday afternoon, no one knew how he would vote. The chief of staff's position is known to him, and on Sunday it will become clear if