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Israeli peace activists who recently visited Cairo came away with the impression that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has decided to host the Arab League in the near future, to bestow an all-Arab seal of approval upon the Geneva Initiative.

Key people in Cairo promised them that Libya's President Muammar Gadhafi would send a representative too. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah is the one causing difficulties.

He prefers that the league devote the conference to updating and ratifying the Saudi initiative, whose main points were adopted at the Beirut summit. The official decision of the league in March 2002, which calls "for recognition of the state of Israel as a neighbor existing in peace and security in the context of an overall treaty," was emphasized in the road map.

Israeli officials and foreign diplomats who have recently visited the Prime Minister's Office have been impressed that the Arab-Western activity to promote an overall agreement, including with Syria and Lebanon, is intensifying Ariel Sharon's motivation to promote and present a plan of his own. But even if Sharon were to change his spots, the composition of the political map doesn't enable him to implement even the most modest articles of the road map (see, for example, the article regarding the evacuation of all the illegal outposts established after March 2001).

The Likud faction is threatening to disintegrate over the withdrawal from Gaza. What will remain of it the day after Sharon begins political negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization based on the Geneva Initiative, and coalition negotiations with the Labor Party based on a withdrawal to the 1967 lines?

Therefore, in spite of the clear advantages of an overall agreement over a partial step that will leave us with the conflict, the option of returning to overall political negotiations is not even on the political horizon. Since the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians have been avoiding any other interim agreement, for fear Israel will make it permanent. The Israelis for their part are afraid a final agreement will quickly turn out to be temporary.

The only relevant question is how to make sure that "Gaza first" doesn't once again turn into "Gaza last." Turning the Gaza Strip into one big explosives laboratory, which will require the Israel Defense Forces to reoccupy it, will drive another nail into the coffin of peace. On the other hand, liberated Gaza can turn into a laboratory for peace, which will engender the seeds of an overall agreement.

First, for the disengagement plan to serve as a model for solving the conflict, which can develop only in a multilateral process, we have to leave behind the superfluous expression "unilateral." Former prime minister Ehud Barak proposes that we follow the successful precedent of the ostensibly unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon, but this withdrawal doesn't merit the name "unilateral."

The Israeli foreign minister at the time, David Levy, submitted to Terje Larsen, the emissary of the UN Secretary General, an official request to coordinate the issue of the border with the governments of Syria and Lebanon. In the wake of incidents on the northern border, Israel is quick to mention the Blue Line, the handiwork of the UN representatives, and sometimes asks for the organization to intervene.

In the case of the withdrawal from Gaza, the involvement of the UN is even more important. The organization runs about half of the welfare and health services in the region. The "donor nations" also fill an important role in daily life in the Gaza Strip.

The United States has already promised its Quartet partners that it will not allow Sharon to abandon the Gaza Strip to anarchy. Washington itself is afraid of Gaza turning into Hamasland - a memorial to the vision of U.S. President George W. Bush, who is fighting for his future in the White House.

The Americans informed Sharon that before the meeting with Bush he must meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, in order to begin proceedings to coordinate the transfer of control over the Gaza Strip. Cairo also made it clear that if Israel coordinates the withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip with the Palestinian Authority, Egypt will intensify its efforts to close its border to weapons smugglers in the Rafah area.

A transfer of the settlements coordinated with the PA could be an experience that will make up for the destruction of Yamit, and a model for the rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees in their new state. The reply to the mantra that "uprooting settlements equals a reward for terrorism" must be, "the exit from Gaza equals a prize for peace."