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An aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once talked about a visit to Sharon's Sycamore Ranch, during which he toured with the premier in a jeep. "Here I would position an ambush," said the host, pointing toward a fold in the ground, "and from here, they can shoot at you." This is Sharon's view of the world. It's all about topography.

The formative experience of his life was the battle of Latrun on May 25, 1948, in which he fought as a platoon commander, was wounded, and barely made it out alive. When he recovered, Ariel Sharon decided that he would never let the Arabs win, that he would never abandon soldiers on the battlefield.

And another lesson drawn from the battle, in which the Jordanians fired from the top of the hill at his platoon, which was taking cover in a wadi: Capture the high ground. Adopting the same watchword, he would later build the settlements in the West Bank and the lookout villages in the Galilee.

Sharon's pronouncement this week on the liquidation of the Gazan settlements and the evacuation of a few settlements in Samaria reflects a clear political zigzag. At the end of the summer, he was still talking about the importance of "our security presence in Gaza" and cautioning that a unilateral withdrawal would lead to continued terror. There is no doubt that he has changed his mind, and generated a political earthquake.

It is doubtful, however, that he has changed his strategic outlook. He is apprehensive about a withdrawal to the Green Line, which enjoys strong international support, but in his opinion is dangerous for Israel. This is why he has until now shunned any significant negotiations. Now, with the pressure turned up, he is proposing a deal: "moving" isolated settlements and strengthening Israel's hold on other regions.

Sharon is prepared to pay with the evacuation of Gaza for American consent to Israel's continued control over a large part of the West Bank. That is why he instructed his national security advisor, Giora Eiland, to chart security lines that Israel could hold for years, "until there is a partner."

Sharon has been kicking around these ideas for a long time, each time under a different name. Once it was the plan for massive settlement of the West Bank (1977), another time it was "annexation as per the Allon Plan" (1988), then the "enclaves map" (1994), the long-term interim agreement (1999), the temporary Palestinian state (2001), the "fence route" (2003), and now the "disengagement with American backing" (2004). The common denominator of all of these plans is Israeli control over the "security regions" of the Jordan Rift and Western Samaria, and closing the Palestinians into enclaves in the hilly areas.

After Camp David, Sharon added settlement in the Western Negev to the map, to create an obstacle to a territorial exchange. The settlements in Gaza were intended to break up Palestinian territorial contiguity, but it seems that in Sharon's view, that role is now over. Presumably, Sharon understood the chronic inferiority in terms of balance of forces.

Sharon is trying to follow in the footsteps of Menachem Begin, who conceded Sinai so that Israel could stay in the West Bank; Ehud Barak, who left Lebanon in order to perpetuate Israel's control of the Golan; and Shimon Peres, who championed "Gaza First" and a deferral of a solution in the West Bank and Jerusalem. All of them enjoyed success in the short term, but left diplomatic time bombs for their successors.

A similar problem is inherent in the Sharon plan, which leaves a vacuum on the Palestinian side and a lot of open questions. Will a "Hamastan" arise in Gaza on the ruins of the Palestinian Authority? And if a terrorist is discovered in Jenin, will the IDF go in to catch him? Will George Bush buy the Sharon proposals? Will he agree to expansion of the settlements that are not evacuated? Will he demand that Israel give up the "eastern fence"?

More than anything else, however, Sharon's disengagement plan raises one niggling question: Why did he wait until now, when his political situation is at a nadir and his continuation in office is threatened by possible indictment?

One can only wonder where Israel would be now if Sharon had had this insight when he was at his peak, instead of wasting valuable time and effort on vain attempts to "beat the Palestinians."