Even after the dramatic developments of the last ten days, the Ariel Sharon question remains open. There's no doubt those who wrote off the aging sumo warrior were wrong - Sharon is not a juggling deceiver. He is a head taller than most of the short-term politicians sitting around his government table. However, those who believed in Sharon are also still likely to be proved wrong - there is something worrying about the way the prime minister is undertaking the most important project of his life.
Even now, his manner and management style raises questions about his ability to seriously deal with the challenge of ending the occupation. Evacuating Gaza is the right idea. Anyone with their eyes open who can see the strategic reality gripping Israel, must support unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Strip. Anyone who understands the considerations at work in Sharon's thinking must have understood a few months ago the prime minister was adopting the idea of the withdrawal.
However, it also must be clear that if Sharon doesn't know how to translate his primordial concept into a responsible political plan, the impressive initiative could end in a resounding failure. In one pessimistic scenario he doesn't even start the process, in another its implementation turns very dangerous.
The withdrawal from Gaza must be absolute, to the last settlement, the last grain of sand, all the way to the Green Line. The need for total withdrawal, 100 percent withdrawal, is not derived from an innocent belief in peace. On the contrary. Those who appreciate that the Israel-Gaza border will be a sensitive border of conflict are those who must guarantee that there's no Shaba Farm on that line.
The situation created on the day after the withdrawal must be unequivocal - Israel has totally withdrawn and therefore any act of violence against it is totally illegitimate. If Ariel Sharon is greedy for Eli Sinai, Nissanit, Dugit and the dunes around them, he will dull the alternatives and grant the Gaza Palestinians an excuse to attack their neighbor. For a handful of sandy dunams, Sharon will lose Israel a vital strategic asset.
The withdrawal from Gaza must be generous. Leaving behind the Strip of Palestinian despair, Israel cannot turn its back on it. It should not be forgotten that Israel is largely responsible for the 37 years of occupation. Israel is also responsible for a considerable part of the fate of the refugees. Therefore it has a moral duty to make sure the misery of Gaza is as limited as possible. It is in Israel's interests to ensure the society over the Green Line is not totally hopeless.
The withdrawal should be combined with a development initiative and as much democratization as possible. The social economic and regime rehabilitation of Gaza should be a huge international enterprise, a la Peres, in which Israel plays a leading role.
More than anything else, the withdrawal from Gaza must project strength. If the evacuation is perceived as Israeli weakness, the angry prophecies of the heads of Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet will come true. The only factor that can prevent that is the U.S. Only an unprecedented U.S.-Israeli agreement could give the withdrawal the kind of political security net that prevents a deterioration into violence.
The agreement must include American recognition that there is no right of return to sovereign Israel and that in a permanent agreement, most of the settlers can remain in their homes - as per the Clinton Framework. The agreement must include an explicit American declaration that as long as the Palestinians do not accept those two principles they will be responsible for the continuation of the conflict.
The agreement must include an American understanding that under those circumstances Israel will be allowed to defend itself from within agreed upon security lines to which it will withdraw in the coming years.
The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will not bring peace in our time. It also won't put a final end to the occupation. But it will be the start of the end of the occupation. It will define Israel anew as a Jewish-democratic state interested in justice. No, the withdrawal will not be flowery and perfumed. It will be complicated, ugly and dangerous. It will involve blood, sweat and tears.
Just that - blood, sweat and tears. However, because of that, this critical withdrawal is custom-made for Ariel Sharon's size. Will he do it? He will try. Will he do it properly? We'll know in a month's time.
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