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The general staff is wondering what the prime minister means when he says there will be no withdrawal under fire. Does he mean that the disengagement plan will not be implemented as long as the terror acts continue, like the one at the Karni crossing over the weekend, or that the duty of the Israel Defense Forces is to ensure that no fire takes place when it is time to pull out?

In other words, is Ariel Sharon conditioning his plan's execution on a radical change in the Palestinians' behavior, or is he sticking to it at all costs and making the army responsible for creating the terms to carry it out?

On the face of it, Sharon appears resolved to carry out the disengagement initiative; this is borne out by his conduct so far, for which he has paid a heavy political price. It also appears to be in Abu Mazen's interests to make it easier for Sharon to implement his plan. Until a year ago, it was said that the prime minister would not uproot a single flower from the settlements, and now he is announcing his readiness to pull out of two whole regions.

However, Abu Mazen does not seem to be helping Sharon with his plan. He is showing no signs of imposing his authority on the Palestinian terror organizations; at most, he wishes to reach understandings with them, and it is doubtful whether he will achieve even that goal. Abu Mazen is an intelligent man. He knows what Israel, Europe and the United States expect of him. He understands that he is doomed if he fails to enforce law and order in the Palestinian Authority, if he fails to subject the armed militias to one authority, purge the corruption, control the money transfers and eliminate the rival power structures. Yet, so far, he appears to recoil from taking firm action to realize the powers that the majority of the Palestinians have invested in him.

Abu Mazen probably understands that bloody terrorist attacks, which cause Israeli casualties, weaken Sharon's ability to carry out his plan. From the start, the disengagement plan aroused intense controversy in the Israeli public, not only because of the ideological rift between left and right, but because of the doubt in the plan's feasibility. It stands to reason that the increase in terror attacks will deepen the doubt in the justness and reason of Sharon's planned move. Abu Mazen is bound to repeat Arafat's mistake and lose the support of the Israeli peace camp. If he continues to cringe from handling terrorism firmly, he will chip away at the majority supporting the disengagement plan and give the prime minister an excuse to revoke it.

This will be a tragic missed opportunity, because Sharon is signaling that he is willing to renounce the unilateral component of his plan and conduct negotiations with the new Palestinian leadership on coordinating its implementation. This option not only serves Sharon's political needs (a chance to add Shas to the coalition), but provides the opportunity to create an atmosphere that is conducive to confidence-building measures between the two sides and to give the disengagement plan a new, political dimension.

The majority presently supporting the disengagement plan is fluid. Only a minority of Israelis is willing to observe the ongoing terrorist attacks calmly, seeing them as steps in a struggle in which foreign hands (Iran and Hezbollah) are also involved. Only a handful would state that the circumstances and considerations that led to the disengagement plan are still valid after the attacks, and that the terrorism in the crossings in the Gaza Strip are a cynical exploitation of a transition period, intended to enhance the prestige of the terror organizations.

Only a small group would admit that, with or without the terror attacks, the situation compels Israel to pull out of the Strip and the rest of the territories. The majority might be swept in the opposite direction, and Abu Mazen should take this into consideration.