Like an experienced circus bear suddenly expected to walk a tightrope, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is leading the process of implementing the disengagement plan toward a most momentous decision, which is expected to be taken by the cabinet today. The crowd in the stalls - including the Palestinians, the State of Israel, which is living with the feeling that the entire tent could collapse on its head, and the international community - is holding its breath. Will the process successfully reach the next station, and what will come next? Will the cabinet give the premier its approval to carry out the first stage of the evacuation, and what will the Knesset say? Will the government have a majority when the Knesset votes on the state budget?
On the face of it, a nation that has decided on withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria should create an orderly political process that brings the decision to an unequivocal conclusion. After all, all the surveys bear witness to the fact that this is indeed the desire of the majority of the public. Nevertheless, the country is on tenterhooks: Will the Likud rebels foil the vote in the Knesset? Will the members of the Yahad faction raise their hands in support of the budget? And what will happen with Shinui and Shas: Will one of them join the government and thus dispel the doubts that are weighing down the process of implementing the disengagement plan? And if both factions turn down Sharon's appeals, how will the Arab factions vote in the budget debate?
The prime minister is taking pains to implement his plan because the Knesset, apparently, does not reflect the will of the public. The political process, which is supposed to back up the disengagement plan, is fragile and tends to be subject to vicissitudes; it smacks of underhandedness rather than being an expression of stable national consensus - starting to get rid of the burden that occupation has imposed on the country.
However, this is how Israeli politics work, and it would be improper to stop the process of approving the disengagement initiative now in order to give it an improved look. To call elections now would also not be right, and even more improper is the call to hold a referendum. On an official level, the government's decisions with regard to withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Samaria were taken in a due manner, and the changes in the composition of the coalition during the government's term of office are an accepted practice in local political culture.
The decision about disengagement and its corollaries is within the mandate granted by the public to the prime minister in the last election campaign, during which he announced his acceptance of the establishment of a Palestinian state and his readiness for painful concessions, and they are certainly within the sphere of authority of the government he set up.
The decision due to be taken by the cabinet today is a giant leap forward on the way to putting the disengagement plan into effect, but a small step in the process of settling the conflict with the Palestinians. Today the cabinet will approve the practical application of withdrawal, but it still has four other stops along the way to voting for the completion of evacuation in fact. Moreover, even if the government is able to fulfill its wish and, somehow, Gush Katif and northern Samaria become devoid of an Israeli presence in July, the country will still have a long and complicated obstacle course to cross until a stable arrangement is reached with the Palestinians.
First and foremost, the Israeli public will have to determine whether it views the disengagement plan as a first step in a process whose aim is reaching an agreement on ties with the Palestinian nation, or whether it regards this merely as a one-off move. In practical terms, it will be up to the public to decide whether it backs the prime minister who is prepared, at most, to achieve an interim agreement, or whether it supports the proposal to reach a permanent settlement now.
The choice between the two alternatives will reflect the true attitude of the public to the conflict and will put to the test the reliability of the premise that its support for the disengagement plan expresses willingness to pay the necessary price to put an end to the conflict.
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