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Israel's image took a beating from the ICJ (International Court of Justice) on Friday. For the present it seems Israel will be able to stop the ruling from becoming a binding UN resolution, and will be able to go about its business as usual.

But in the long run, the judges' decision in The Hague damages Israel's legitimacy and portrays it as a criminal state that has been acting contrary to international law for 37 years in the territories.

Israel's arguments, that the West Bank is "controversial territory," that the settlements are legal, and that it is waging a just defensive war against Palestinian terror - have been totally rejected. The judges ruled unanimously that Israel is an occupying power, that the settlements are in violation of international law, and that building a fence beyond the Green Line is prohibited.

Even Judge Thomas Buergenthal, the American judge on the ICJ and the only one to dissent from the verdict, agreed with his colleagues' conclusions and expressed reservations mainly on the fence route. The Palestinians and their supporters in the international community won a big gift in The Hague.

From now on, Israel's information apologists will have to cope not only with the resolutions of the UN, which they portray as a hostile political body, but with the reasoned ruling of a professional, respected legal body, which has declared that Israel is engaged in a war of occupation and annexation territories, as the Palestinians claim.

Senior Israeli officials consoled themselves over the weekend that the ruling went too far in favor of the Palestinians, and that in their desire to convict Israel, the judges ignored the reason for the fence - Palestinian terror.

Officials hope this will make it easier for Israel to blast the decision. But woe betide such a consolation. The Hague ruling, calling for a halt to the construction and taking down the sections already built, follows the Israeli High Court of Justice's demand to move the fence route because of the injury it inflicts on the Palestinians.

The section ruled out of order in the Jerusalem corridor will be replanned as closely as possible to the green line.

The Sharon government's main project suddenly appears to its creators to be a cumbersome burden. In the next few days the political battle will move to New York. Israel will try to persuade the European states not to support the Palestinian resolution proposal for the UN General Assembly to adopt The Hague's ruling.

The U.S. promised to stop the issue from passing to the Security Council, which can impose sanctions. Washington Ambassador Danny Ayalon, who went to Jerusalem for consultations, predicts that the U.S. will veto the proposal. The Palestinians will then take the debate to the UN emergency assembly, which has no enforcing power, but can recommend sanctions.

Foreign Ministry veterans remember the previous emergency assembly in 1982, after Israel decided to annex the Golan Heights. The assembly recommended severing political and economic ties with Israel. Nobody paid any attention to it.

Israel's real answer to The Hague, senior officials say, is the disengagement plan. Withdrawing from Gaza and the northern West Bank will prove that Israel does not seek to perpetuate the occupation and annexation.

However, the ICJ ruling will make it more difficult for Israel to avoid carrying out the disengagement next year. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom heard many statements of support in Washington last week, but also hints that the support is conditional on Israel keeping its promises.

"If we remain with The Hague and don't carry out the disengagement, we will be that much closer to becoming South Africa," a diplomatic source warned yesterday.