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The settler leaders and spokespeople of the radical right-wing groups are asserting that the prime minister's proposal to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza came a moment before the Palestinian Authority's final defeat.

This is not new. Every time an Israeli prime minister opens his eyes and manages to see the terrible price the state is paying because of the continuation of the violent conflict with the Palestinians, the right wing resorts to the argument that, had he shown a little more determination, the enemy would have surrendered and there would have been no need to make concessions or gestures to it.

This was the case when Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accord and again when Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat a final settlement in Camp David. This was also the case every time Ariel Sharon responded to American pressure to try to reach a cease-fire with the PA. In each of these cases, the right wing, including the Likud or parts of it, proclaimed that Israeli prime ministers were throwing the Palestinians a superfluous life belt a moment before their final collapse, and that the right thing to do was to increase the military pressure on them.

Now they are using this argument against Sharon. They say his nerves are giving way and that, had he been a little more patient, the Israel Defense Forces would have smashed the Palestinians' resistance and spared Israel the need to clear out of the Gaza Strip. Much like, in another country and another time, the legend of the knife in the back took hold, thus the version is spreading among right-wing circles that victory has slipped from our hands at the last moment, because of the prime minister's personal weakness.

It still remains to be seen whether Sharon is worthy of this dubious honor. His withdrawal declarations are yet to be proved and whoever doubts their sincerity has good reason to do so. Yet, even if Sharon ultimately finds a way to avoid carrying out his statement, it has weight because it reflects an admission of the futility of Israel's continued presence in the Strip, and of the low the state has sunk to because of it.

The absurd is that Sharon still has one foot in the right-wing camp that is proclaiming against him. He announced his intention to leave Gaza, but immediately after that he began pruning his plan and reducing it. In the last three weeks, the public heard that the withdrawal will not be complete; that three settlements in the north of the Strip will remain where they are; that the IDF will continue patroling some of the evacuated areas; that the plan at present is in principle, not a practical one; that it is too early to name the settlements to be evacuated; that there is no reason to hasten to present the plan to the cabinet; that before it is implemented there will be a referendum; that the move must be coordinated with the American administration; that an effort will be made to respond to the U.S. expectation to combine the proposal into the road map and President George Bush's vision, as well as an effort to talk to the PA.

These conditions may be seen as tricks that Sharon is using to get his plan through the political obstacle course. On the other hand, they may be seen as a ladder he is building to get down from the high tree he has climbed up. They can also be seen as an attempt to camouflage a trial balloon whose owner did not mean to carry out the message written on it to begin with.

Perhaps the limits he is setting are authentic evidence of his agonizing deliberations. He realizes he must evacuate the Gaza Strip, but deep down something whispers to him that maybe, with another effort, the Palestinians could be vanquished militarily, once and for all.

We must help Sharon internalize the insight that the State of Israel, which is in the throes of a dangerous convulsion, desperately needs calibration. The key to bringing it back to a proper course of development is ending the occupation and renouncing the territories. Leaving Gaza is a step in the right direction. All the other solutions are illusions, like the false belief that a little extra effort will bring the yearned for victory.