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Avian flu is not the only epidemic threatening us. While there are no indications that this particular scourge has reached Israel, there are a couple of other contagious diseases that have already come our way. Like the infectious disease with the long generic name "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." From the way things look right now, Israel's got it, too.

You don't have to be a medical genius to come up with the diagnosis that we're also pretty good at blowing opportunities. Just two months ago, we wrapped up a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. A bold move, yes. But it is hard to believe that our political leadership thought this was all we had to do to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and put terror behind us. As if that were that, and now Judea and Samaria would be left in peace forevermore.

Menachem Begin made the same mistake when he convinced himself and those around him that by withdrawing fully from Sinai and evacuating all the settlements there, he had done his bit in carrying out UN Resolutions 242 and 338. In all seriousness, he believed that the West Bank was one of those "minor adjustments" promised in these resolutions.

Twenty-five years after the evacuation of Yamit, after scores of suicide bombings, two intifadas and never-ending bloodshed on both sides, we are back to where Begin was. The Palestinians' aspiration for a state of their own on every last inch of land remains as steadfast as ever.

The Gaza evacuation enhanced Sharon's reputation not only as a seeker of peace, but also as someone with the power to impose his will on the Land of Israel extremists. But anyone who thought that we were done with terrorism was sorely mistaken. We will have to live with Palestinian terror of some degree for many years to come.

Rudolph Giuliani, the legendary mayor of New York, did not wipe out crime in his city, even if that is his claim to fame. He lowered it to a reasonable level, which is also an achievement. Decreasing Palestinian terror to a tolerable level in our neck of the woods will be an achievement along those lines. Israel's response to terror must be selective and measured - not a return to collective punishment that will turn the lives of West Bank residents into hell.

When I read between the lines that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, now playing the role of bad cop, says we have to teach the Palestinians that the consequence of terror is severe punishment, it's just a matter of time before we find ourselves in a bloody battle over Judea and Samaria, and a great rift erupts between extremists and those prepared for painful concessions in return for peace.

Sharon, brimming with self-confidence, has chosen to move ahead on the road map, which also makes a slew of demands on the Palestinians. Hamas and Islamic Jihad must be barred from participating in Palestinian Authority elections. Terror must come to an immediate halt. The armed militias must be dismantled. At every step of the way, their actions must be scrutinized under a microscope to see where they have delivered and where they have not. It is interesting what we would say if the Palestinians demanded that our biggest fanatics be barred from running for Knesset.

Sharon envisages a Palestinian state founded in stages, with a temporary state arising at one of those stages. The concept of time here is one that stretches out like chewing gum until 2010, when Sharon turns 82 and Shimon Peres will presumably be there still, as his partner and deputy.

The pullout from Gaza created great expectations among the Palestinians. But everything seems to point to Israel continuing its policy of hanging on to most of the West Bank. Gaza-style unilateral separation is unlikely in this case, because it is bad for both sides. Certainly for Israel. Defending ourselves is easier when we're out than when we're inside, as occupiers.

So what we need next is a mutual accord. First of all, because there is global support for it, and we have a reasonable enough partner - maybe not the strongest, but the first that really wants to reach an agreement. And second of all, because a drastic decline in Bush's standing, combined with fear of international Islamic terror in the West, could make the world disgusted with us again and slam the window of opportunity shut.

So let's hurry up, for God's sake, and get ourselves vaccinated against missed opportunity disease. The outbreak of the third intifada, if such a thing happens, could be fatal.