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It is the High Holidays, the time of year when Jews are commanded to have second thoughts.

Accordingly, in Israel, it is at this time of year that, in taking an honest look at themselves, their actions and interactions, their findings may be the most refreshing. And disturbing.

Perhaps inevitably, much of the rethinking has shown itself on the Israeli left, which has at times raised the concept of second thoughts to the level of an art form, an alternative ideology, even a state religion.

This month, as the right massed in tens of thousands to assail Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the conduct of his disengagement campaign, denouncing his drive to evacuate settlements as lacking all legitimacy, one of the most respected advocates of the withdrawal initiative lent her voice in unlikely backing for the prime minister's critics.

"The central question is that of legitimacy," said Ruth Gavison, one of Israel's foremost professors of law and a founder and former president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

"The Sharon government today has no clear legitimacy for the move that it is making," she said of the disengagement campaign, noting that the plan has yet to be approved either by the cabinet or the Knesset.

"It is not at all certain that we should cooperate with this move, which threatens to take people out of their homes under the authority of such a shaky [legal] basis, without even so much as a cabinet decision."

In fact, a number of attempts by Sharon to win formal backing for the plan have either been blunted or brusquely rebuffed.

In May, the prime minister's bid to garner momentum for disengagement through a referendum of members of his Likud party ended in a humiliating defeat.

A month later, Sharon's cabinet balked at ratifying the initiative. So divided was the cabinet that the prime minister ultimately sacked two far-right National Union ministers to ensure a majority.

But even then, three of his five senior Likud ministers withheld their votes until the prime minister agreed to limit the decision to an anemic resolution on preparations for a possible future disengagement, which would then be subject to a potentially crippling series of phases and cabinet reconsiderations.

In no small part, the secret weapon of the right in battling the disengagement has been the pointed, even ideological absence of second thoughts which has long been a hallmark of the Israeli right in general and of the religious right in particular.

"This prime minister is weak - the Emperor has no clothes," Yesha settlers' council official Moshe Yogev declared this week in a meeting with pro-disengagement cabinet minister Gideon Ezra.

"There's no security, there's no peace. Only withdrawal after withdrawal, and surrendering to terrorism. If Sharon can take a bulldozer and raze the study house set up by my parents in [the Gaza settlement of] Atzmona, I'm allowed to take a bulldozer and drive out to Sycamore Ranch [Sharon's home]."

Second thoughts as second natureFor many on the left, meanwhile, the Intifada, in particular Palestinian grass-roots support for deadly terror attacks in the hearts of Israeli cities, has shattered long-held tenets of belief.

Bereft of a peace process, devoid of leadership, for many doves, second thoughts have become second nature.

The legal ambiguity of the disengagement procedure - coupled with long-held suspicions regarding Ariel Sharon's true motives - has done little to generate leftist enthusiasm for the proposed withdrawal.

"Had there been a stable government, and had it approved the move by a large majority, in my view there would have been no problem of legitimacy," Gavison told Israel Radio.

"Not only was this very, very important condition not fulfilled, but even more significantly, the cabinet apparently failed to approve the disengagement because if it had taken a decision, the government would have fallen apart."

Noting that the central party of the government, Sharon's Likud, was so divided over the disengagement that it showed signs of actively opposing it, Gavison said:

"From the standpoint of a representative democracy, this is a very defective situation. There is no doubt, therefore, that Israel is currently suffering from what may be called a severe deficit of legitimacy."

The legitimacy gap has prompted sharp recent debate over holding an unprecedented referendum over the disengagement. The prime minister has turned aside the calls, with his aides calling them a ploy by the right to stall for time in an effort to bring the disengagement to a halt.

In the meantime, Sharon's campaign has begun once again to pick up steam. Last week, in the first concrete step toward disengagement, his security cabinet voted 9-1 to give a green light to down payments on compensation for settlers willing to voluntarily leave their homes in the 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four northern West Bank enclaves slated for removal under the plan.

"It is indeed peculiar that a government can begin a move toward uprooting from their houses citizens that the government originally sent there - without a decision by the cabinet," Gavison said.

Some of the steps the government is currently taking may be irreversible, she continued.

Despite efforts by Sharon's predecessors Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu to nudge Israeli governance in the direction of a more American-style presidential rule, the Knesset has never relinquished the governmental center of gravity. The prime minister and his cabinet serve at the pleasure of parliament, which can topple a government in a single vote.

Sharon, for his part, sees no legitimacy gap. He indicated in a radio interview Wednesday that the cabinet's muted decision to green-light preparations for the disengagement amounted to approval of the plan.

"I am acting in a democratic manner," Sharon said. "The cabinet has accepted the decision. I will bring this decision to the Knesset. A decision of the cabinet and the Knesset is certainly appropriate legitimacy."

Gavison saw it differently. "With all due respect to the prime minister, we have no presidential system. Sharon has been functioning like de Gaulle. Sharon needs to understand that his has no power other than that of his government. And his government, for the time being, is stuttering over the disengagement."

Gavison compared the state of affairs to the waning months of the Barak government. "There was a great debate at the time in Israeli society, as Ehud Barak, with elections already imminent and it appeared headed for defeat, continued to conduct far-reaching negotiations on peace accords. I felt then that this was improper."

The deepening legitimacy crisis has prompted senior IDF officers to advise Sharon that a "clear democratic process," which may mean new elections, a referendum, or Knesset ratification, could markedly smooth an avacuation process, particularly among settlers and Orthodox soldiers.

Sharon has ruled out a general referendum or early elections as measures that would be unduly costly in time and money, and would in the end only serve to delay the disengagement. "We must make a maximum effort to refrain from elections, or to postpone them for as long as possible, until the central missions and goals facing us are carried out," the prime minister argued.

But Gavison concluded that precisely in order to carry out the disengagement, Israel must be able to state that the people had had their say, and that a clear decision had been made.

"Then it will truly be possible to do things that are among the hardest of all, in the name of the rules of the game of democracy.

"As long as this situation is not in effect, I fear that we cannot do this. We cannot demand of people that their life's work be destroyed without a clear decision of the elected government."