Searching for handmade clay flowerpots to furnish their restaurant, two Tel Aviv yuppies decided on January 23 to ignore an Israeli ban on their entering Palestinian Authority areas. They met a Palestinian friend, eluded Israeli military roadblocks, and

Searching for handmade clay flowerpots to furnish their restaurant, two Tel Aviv yuppies decided on January 23 to ignore an Israeli ban on their entering Palestinian Authority areas. They met a Palestinian friend, eluded Israeli military roadblocks, and ate lunch in the town of Tulkarm.

The outing ended tragically when, after the trio at their lunch, masked men shot the Israeli pair in the back and neck, killing them instantly. The PA made a brief and unconvincing show of arresting the murderers; in fact the killing went unsolved and unpunished - just one more no-cost assault on Israeli Jews during the Barak era.

In dramatic contrast, another Israeli wended his way to a restaurant in Tulkarm this past Sunday and he too met with trouble from masked men. But he had the good fortune to travel in the Sharon era. Within hours, he was released unharmed, thanks to nothing less than the personal intervention of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.

These two incidents illustrate the change in Israeli-Palestinian relations that has taken place in since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office on March 7.

Open season on Israelis has ended. A new Palestinian caution is in the air.

Here's another indication: Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah terrorist leader, responded to the January killings in Tulkarm with comments indicating his qualified support for armed attacks on Israelis. But less than a week ago, he ordered an end to the shooting of Israelis from populated areas of the PA-controlled territories.

Other small signs also suggest Arabs recognize a new era has begun.

After years of ferocious and unbridled antisemitism, word comes now from Beirut that the prime minister of Lebanon banned a international Holocaust-denial conference set to start there at the end of March. "Lebanon has more important things to do than hold conferences that hurt its international standing and smear its name," said Rafik Hariri.

Such prudence, unheard-of in recent years, results from what might be called the "Sharon effect." After decades of demonizing the new prime minister, his coming to power has prompted an understandable caution among would-be enemies of Israel.

But a scary reputation only goes so far; to prompt a true, long-term change in Arab attitudes requires that the Sharon government prove it means business. Here, things are less clear.

On the plus side, the new government has shown resolve and imagination, making deep changes on matters ranging from high-school history textbooks to its self-presentation in the White House. Sharon has declared "Oslo is no more." He is establishing two concepts of great importance: that diplomacy will begin only when violence ends; and that the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation is just a fraction of the Middle East's many problems.

Looking beyond the government, the population also appears to be coming together. During a visit to Israel earlier this month, as a guest of the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University, I found two themes recurring in my discussions: first, the Palestinians' having rewarded prime minister Ehud Barak's generosity with a campaign of violence had displayed the depth of their hostile intentions; the notion of Arafat as a "partner for peace" has few takers anymore. Second, while Palestinians are paying a very high economic price for their violence, most Israelis now hardly feel that violence. The Palestinians, in other words, have boxed themselves in and face some painful decisions.

On the minus side, Sharon has indicated a troubling intention to reach a "long-term peace agreement" with the PA, something that is plainly unrealistic. The PA's use of mortar shells against Israelis has gone unanswered, as have the many shooting incidents. Economic clampdowns are lifted before they can take full effect. Nor can one be confident that Sharon will control his errant foreign minister, Shimon Peres.

Optimism comes slowly to those of us who, for over seven years watched as the Oslo diplomacy destabilized Arab-Israeli relations (can anyone deny that prospects for war are greater today than in 1993?). We wonder if Israel's body politic has really understood the futility of handshakes and peace treaties so long as these are made with parties who still harbor dreams of destroying the Jewish state.

But such worries can wait. The old Israel, unified and strong, seems to be reemerging from the carcass of Oslo, guided by a confident leadership.

This is a moment to celebrate that the downward spiral toward war has at least momentarily been halted.