U.S. General William ("Kip") Ward entered the bureau of an Israeli major general and scanned the faces of those present. His gaze fell on the tough, shaved scalp of Brigadier General Gadi Shamni, chief of the Operations Division in the General Staff, former commander of the Paratroops commando unit and a graduate of the demanding U.S. Army Rangers course. "You - from infantry," Ward challenged Shamni provocatively, "let's go down for some push-ups."

It wasn't a momentary caprice. Ward was known for his obsession with physical fitness back when he was a mediator in Bosnia, and on the eve of his arrival in this region as the security coordinator for the Palestinians, there were some who predicted that he would take Mohammed Dahlan and his colleagues down for push-ups. Ward read the predictions and decided to challenge the Israelis. Dropping to the floor, he started an endless series of arm-building exercises; first, like Shamni, with two hands, and later, long after Shamni quit, with one hand.

Ward's show did not endear him to the Israel Defense Forces' top brass. When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appointed him to his post, Israel's General Staff predicted that Ward would take advantage of the opportunity to add a fourth and final star to the three he already has, at Israel's expense. Half a year later, his acquaintances in the Kirya - the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv - sound like their concern has been realized twice over. Ward will be the permanent acting commander of the European Command (EUCOM), whose sector of activity includes Israel and Palestine. If in the past U.S. generals knew Israel from periodic meetings, from exchanges of operational and intelligence information, and from joint courses and maneuvers, henceforth there will be an officer at EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart who is personally acquainted with everyday life in Israel and with the smell of Ramallah and the poverty of Gaza - an officer who, according to his interlocutors, fell in love with the Palestinians.

When Ward was asked if he wanted to meet with any particular IDF officer, he pulled out a long list of chiefs of territorial commands and heads of branches and many other senior personnel. At first, his appetite to learn from experts was considered flattering, until it turned out that Ward had taken to heart a briefing he received from American diplomats from the school of thought of former ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis: to continually expand the range of his acquaintances in the bureaucracy and in the officer corps, in order to maneuver and work around them to achieve his goals. The suspicion that this was, indeed, the case arose in the wake of some reminiscing that Ward did about his mission in the Balkans, where he once discovered a promising young officer in northern Bosnia and enlisted him to lead his efforts. Suddenly, the General Staff was shaken by the thought that the U.S. general was interviewing brigadier general after major general, until he could find the Israeli equivalent of his young Bosnian.

The Palestinian officer whom Ward cultivated is not so young. He is Nasser Yusuf, commander of the security forces of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The view in Tel Aviv is that Yusuf is making a sincere effort, but his successes depend more on Hamas' restraint than on the operations of the security forces. Personnel in Southern Command are willing to be a bit more complementary about Yusuf. His man in Gaza, Suleiman Khiles, is trying to please his counterpart, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, the divisional commander. The ceremony at the beginning of next week in which Kochavi hands the keys to Khiles, at the division's headquarters amid the ruins of what used to be Neveh Dekalim, will be the picture that will symbolize the bilateral aspect of the unilateral evacuation of Gaza.

Gluing broken pottery

"He is now looking at Gaza," a senior IDF officer said about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "as he did at 6 A.M. on June 5, 1967" - as an area that is across the border and under Egyptian influence, as it was then when Sharon, a major general, was about to go into battle at the head of his division. Now Sharon has succeeded in thoroughly confusing the enemy, provided the enemy is the IDF. His directive to evacuate Gaza was issued without forward-looking or profound thought. The planning in the IDF and in the National Security Council to transmit the general directive to the individual level was like broken pottery glued back together: The result is pretty to look at, but won't hold water for long.

Sharon plunged a back into Israel's knife. The Egyptians and the Palestinians do not have to move - on the contrary, they need not move so that Israel will retract its demands. Otherwise, the logic of the unilateral approach will disappear. Israel thus eroded with its own hands the demilitarization of the Egyptian border - and irreversibly, too: To cancel the positioning of the Egyptian brigade at Rafah will require Egyptian consent, which will not be given. The dispute over the air and sea ports is ludicrous. The Palestinians do not need an airport whose runway will be able to accommodate Boeing 747s. A helicopter can lift off from the backyard of Khiles' headquarters or from the seashore across the way - which the Israel Air Force avoided doing, for fear of being shot at - and within minutes land at El-Arish. And seagoing vessels will reach the sovereign shore of Gaza without the Israel Navy being able to show cause to search them.

To the east and to the north of Gaza, the "Kochavi line" will now stretch; its cost, including partial armoring of the Israeli settlements in the area, will be about NIS 1.2 billion. Despite his central role in managing the IDF activity in the sector in the past few months and in the months ahead, and the general agreement that Kochavi is one of the sharpest and most impressive officers of his generation, it is a bit exaggerated to focus so intensely on this brigadier general, who is supposed to remain in his present post for another year and is already considered a candidate for promotion to major general and as head of the Plans and Policy Directorate. The idea of the new line was conceived a year and a half ago, at the request of Southern Command chief Major General Dan Harel, in the mind of Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, who was then between two divisions: Arava and Gaza. It was given form and substance in an administrative body headed by Colonel Yossi Turgeman - a body that grew from Turgeman, his driver and his secretary, to 25 officers and aides.

For those who may have slept through the past month, the civilian disengagement has already ended, so Turgeman's title is now "head of the post-disengagement administration." Turgeman and his colleagues studied the U.S.-Mexico border, the northern border and the security separation fence in the West Bank, and then produced the last word in technology and operational capability, or at least the word before the last. The last word will be the response to future events initiated by the Palestinians.

Response to every event

The Kochavi line promises to be everything that the Bar Lev line in Sinai and various lines in Lebanon (Awali, Zaharani) and along the borders were not, or wanted to be but without success. It will not be a static line, with ponderous open forces patrolling along it like windshield wipers, vulnerable to attack. The line will have all the means that the IDF has learned to provide for the human body and the human voice: weapons fired by remote control (some by female soldiers), unmanned vehicles, computer communications that do away with slow situation-assessment reports (but also deprive commanding officers of the opportunity to display control and sangfroid over the communications network). The working assumption that underlies the policy of applying force is that the first strike, and possibly also the second, will be Palestinian - not an Israeli preemptive strike. Based on the frequency, deadliness and innovativeness of the threat, and on the overall context, the IDF will recommend how to respond: by air or ground fire, by raid or by economic punishment. But always to respond - "a response for every event" - to ensure that restraint does not become institutionalized and erode the consciousness of strength and sovereignty.

The Achilles heel of this policy lies in the proximity of the Israeli localities to the border - 45 of them are now within range of Palestinian weapons, as far as Gvaram in the north, and dozens or hundreds or more may be if long-range rockets are fired. In order to compensate neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim to some extent, the IDF, at Sharon's order, underwrote an increase in their income and reduced the comfort of the soldiers in the new camps. The instrument for this, to the tune of NIS 90 million, was the acquisition of the "captive area" between the security fences. This land was in part usable for farming and not always owned by those who farmed it. But Sharon, whose ranch makes him a neighbor of the kibbutzim and moshavim in the area, ordered generosity and the IDF obeyed.

"We organized their pension," one officer noted, without anger.

This is a characteristic statement of the IDF spirit in the period of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and his deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky. They are spurring accelerated changes to adapt the army to the current directions of the Israeli society. If the society will want to shorten compulsory service, this means it will decide to enforce cuts in the army - or, less likely, to increase the size of the career army and its budget. The IDF believes that the opposite trend will occur: "privatization during routine, nationalization in an emergency," and letting go another 3,000 to 5,000 officers and senior NCOs from the career army, for an annual saving of about NIS 1 billion. The incorporation of the techno-logistics branch into the land arm will accord the GOC Army Headquarters, Major General Benny Gantz, new capability to set priorities with a budget of nearly NIS 6 billion.

Beginning in 2008, reservists will no longer be called up for routine-security duties, other than essential professions (physicians, pilots, intelligence personnel). The ground-protection battalions of the air force bases will be dismantled. If the bases require guarding, a private security company can be hired, and its people - rather than bored conscripts - will also serve as the sentries at the General Staff base.

The IDF will recommend to the political echelon above it to risk peeling away layers from the multilayered defense structure: There is no need for every Syrian tank to be countered by a tank, a cannon and a missile ready to destroy it - from the air, from the sea and from land, as well. The IDF can get along with a smaller stock of engines and spare parts; in an emergency situation, it will recover and get back to full capacity faster than the Arab armies.

"As a civilian," a major general said this week, "if I were able to decide, I would transfer to the police - for security, for the fight against road accents, for the war on crime - NIS 4 billion and not 1,200 soldiers in compulsory service. That is more correct, more important and more beneficial to the society."

This represents a new effort by the IDF to decipher the will of those to whom it is accountable and to coordinate its intentions with the Israelis, as well as with the Palestinians and the Americans, because the vision of the end-of-days is not likely to be realized any time soon.

If there was a fateful report this week, it did not come either from Gaza or from New Orleans, where Katrina seemed to threaten to become George Bush's Monica. The report from the Persian Gulf about the collision of the U.S. nuclear submarine Philadelphia with a Turkish freighter north of Bahrain, with Tehran within range of the sub's Tomahawk missiles, showed that the Americans are preparing seriously for the next confrontation, to which Israel will probably not be able to remain indifferent.