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It could end at any moment - an explosives belt could detonate, officers with Kalishnikovs could mount an attack. Nevertheless, an unprecedented optimism currently prevails among top IDF officers. Arafat is gone, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is establishing himself, and there is someone on the other side with whom to work.

And the new-old Palestinian leader who is blossoming before our eyes is indeed committed to a single authority, one law and one weapon. And Abu Mazen indeed believes in a total cessation of terror and, therefore, is trying to work out a cease-fire. And he is doing this wisely and cautiously, building a broad Palestinian coalition.

Thus, if he is indeed elected on January 9 to head the Palestinian Authority, he will have a clear mandate to reach an interim agreement with Israel. We can reach an agreement over disengagement, and then we will have someone to whom we can hand over the Gaza Strip. And it will be possible to withdraw from the entire Strip, including the Philadelphi Route.

It is reasonable to assume that Mohammed Dahlan and his friends will manage to take over control on the ground. And because Hamas is weaker this time and Israel is more generous and Arafat is not breathing down his neck, there is a real chance that Abu Mazen II will succeed where Abu Mazen I failed. And there is a real chance that he will expedite the peace process and demand the evacuation of additional territories and the dismantling of more settlements in the West Bank. And he will not hesitate to establish Palestine in the foreseeable future. Thus, within two years, a reality of two states is likely to be created, and a significant diplomatic accord is likely to be forged between the State of Israel and a nascent Palestinian state.

So much for the IDF optimism, which proves, among other things, how mistaken it was to regard the intifada army as a hawkish army that thinks only in terms of power. However, the question that should be asked in light of the new optimism blowing from army headquarters is whether it is not premature or excessively superficial, or whether it reflects the tendency of someone whose job is to fight terror to see the cessation of terror as the be-all and end-all; and whether it expresses a dangerous readiness by the Israeli establishment to pay hard diplomatic currency for a temporary lull in the security situation.

There should be no doubt - history was made during the past month. Within three weeks, three dramatic facts were established: Israel made a commitment to disengage, George W. Bush was re-elected, and Yasser Arafat died. These developments reshuffled the deck in the Old Middle East game and dealt cards from the New Middle East game. The rules of the new game are not yet clear. It is a game that holds potential for new dangers, as well as new opportunities.

In this situation, as history is reorganizing itself before our very eyes, we must not latch onto old examples. We must not try to return to Olso or Abu Mazen-Beilin or Abu Mazen 2003. There is also no need to hang onto the narrow disengagement plan designed during a different era and in different circumstances. Instead, the necessary step of disengagement should be placed within a wider strategic context, within a new paradigm of thinking.

The new paradigm must be the democratic paradigm. It must be based on an agreement about the need to generate democratic change in Palestine. This is because no Palestinian-Israeli diplomatic accord would be able to last long without this kind of change, and because no unilateral Israeli move could bring lasting stability without this kind of change, and because, unlike the past, this kind of change is now possible.

The combination of a determined American leadership, new Palestinian leadership and Israeli readiness to withdraw creates an unprecedented opportunity to generate Palestinian reforms.

This opportunity must not be missed. It must not be exchanged for some short-term understanding with Ramallah. We must also not miss this opportunity because of a stubborn insistence on unilateral action. Instead, the plan to withdraw from Gaza should become the first chapter in a much wider plan of Palestinian democratization.

The disengagement should become a lever enabling Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and Europeans to work together toward establishing a democratic Palestine. Any permanent accord should be conditioned upon Palestine becoming a democracy. The same rule should be applied toward the Palestinians that Natan Sharansky once proposed for the Syrians: the depth of withdrawal in accordance with the depth of democratization.

Last week, President Bush invited Natan Sharansky and his colleague Ron Dermer for a surprise meeting in the Oval Office. It was an extraordinarily important meeting. It indicated that during his second term, Bush intends to disseminate the democratic idea throughout the Middle East, starting with Palestine.

The skeptics in Jerusalem should know: If Israel fails to adapt itself to the president's resolute ideological agenda, it will encounter serious problems. On the other hand, if Israel becomes the standard bearer of the democratic idea in the Middle East, the skies are the limit.