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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan has once again placed on the agenda the dispute over the country's borders, which became somewhat less newsworthy after the failure of Camp David and the shock of the intifada. The problem is that for all its importance, the pubic discussion is suffused with cliches and half- truths, which remove it from its proper context.

The first cliche, which is being heard repeatedly since Sharon called for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, describes his pronouncement as Israel's first step toward leaving the territories and ending the 37-year-old occupation. Sharon is presented as a kind of secular messiah who last fall experienced a one-time epiphany, and in its wake decided to ride backward and to lead Israel confidently out of the settlements, which he established in the past with the same enthusiasm.

There is no question that Sharon is enjoying the embrace of his former rivals, who didn't want to see him in power and consistently called for his retirement until he turned against the settlers. They, like him, are allowed to change their minds, but there is no question that his proposals for dismantling the settlements are more daring than those of his predecessors. Moreover, he should also be praised for his political courage in pushing through the disengagement plan, contrary to the prevailing opinion in his party. But with all due respect, his plan is far from being "the first step in the exit from the territories."

There is no getting away from the fact that he was preceded there by former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in the Oslo Accords, Benjamin Netanyahu in the Wye Accords, and Ehud Barak in the Sharm Al Sheikh memo and the Camp David proposals, with his talk of dividing Jerusalem and separating sovereignty above and below the ground on the Temple Mount.

Sharon's predecessors established the Palestinian Authority, brought Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat to the territories, dismantled the Military Administration, withdrew the Israel Defense Forces and marked the parameters for a final status agreement.

Not everything was temporary. The training bases, which Major General Sharon transferred to the West Bank as a first step in establishing the settlements, were dismantled and rebuilt within the Green Line with American funding. It's true that parallel to the partial withdrawal the settlements were reinforced and the bypass roads were paved. But the intention of leaving the territories was clear, even when Sharon angrily opposed it.

Forgetting the past is especially evident in the second cliche now popular in public discourse: "Oslo is dead." There are quite a few reasons for this claim. The process that began in great hope now looks like an historic failure, whose initiators are busy with excuses and accusations. It is difficult to imagine an agreement that has been violated more, in both word and spirit. Arafat, the former international statesman and symbol of peace, reassumed the status of a terrorist and was imprisoned in the Muqata. The IDF returned to the territories in a big way.

Yet in spite of that, it was Sharon's government - the greatest opponent of Oslo - which insisted on reconfirming the supposedly moribund agreements with the PA. The government decision regarding the disengagement specifically determines that the arrangements in many areas "will continue to exist," from the list of weapons in the hands of the PA to the operation of the border crossings and the division of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In spite of the hostility and the belligerent talk, both sides have an interest in observing the agreements. For the Palestinians, they are the source of authority for what remains of their sovereignty and their independence. For Israel, the "existing agreements" are the certificate of exemption from a renewal of the Military Administration, with its heavy economic and moral price. In Jerusalem and Ramallah they prefer to maintain the fiction of Oslo as a framework for cooperation rather than fall into a legal vacuum.

And thus, Sharon's disengagement plan benefits from the legal sponsorship of the Oslo Accords. In spite of his desire to avoid the agreements, Sharon is acting in accordance with them - because what is the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and from the settlements of Ganim and Kaddim in northern Samaria, if not the implementation of the "third step" of the Oslo Accords in which Israel promised to withdraw from most of the territories "to defined military sites."