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The fashionable tendency to dismiss Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not entirely justified. During his first two years in office, he had a series of significant accomplishments: Sharon got Israel out of the dizzy situation in which it found itself toward the end of the era of former prime minister Ehud Barak, Sharon stood firm in face of the terrorist onslaught unleashed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and Sharon established the iron principle that Israel does not withdraw under fire.

In spring-summer of 2002, he even behaved like a true statesman. In the two months following the Seder night massacre in Netanya, Israel's prime minister didn't make do with the massive show of strength in Operation Defensive Shield, but performed a courageous political act when he adopted the idea of the Palestinian state at the Likud convention and designed a balanced strategy whose long-range aim was to create a worthy Palestinian partner. In addition, Sharon changed the election system, isolated Shas, and built a stable secular coalition that reflects - for better and for worse - the values and beliefs of the Israeli majority.

Sharon's policy reached a peak on June 24, 2002. On that day, when U.S. President George W. Bush presented his vision of a democratic Palestine to the international community, he didn't fully express the world view of his Israeli ally. The belief in democracy, and especially Arab democracy, is not exactly the most precious thing to the cowboy from Sycamore Ranch. However, Bush's vision reflected a profound American-Israeli understanding about the need to dismantle the Palestinian terrorist regime and to end the occupation immediately afterward. In practical terms, Bush's vision gave Sharon the ideological security umbrella under which he could move in a responsible and organized manner toward replacing an occupying Jewish state that is expiring, with a democratic and permanent Jewish state.

However, Sharon didn't do that. The farmer from the South preferred to become mired in the status quo. He prefered futile daily maneuvering to great statesmanship. Therefore, instead of translating the vision of a democratic Palestine into a serious work plan that would make it possible to divide the country cautiously, within a reasonable period of time, Sharon sank up to his neck in outpost games. Instead of exploiting Palestinian fatigue and the lull in the violence in order to create a political breakthrough, Sharon wasted time. Instead of demonstrating political moderation and determined leadership, Sharon got entangled in the maze-dead end of the road map. Instead of quickly building a defensive Israeli fence that fences in a minimum area and receives maximum legitimacy, Sharon did exactly the opposite. So that in the final analysis, instead of 2003 being Ariel Sharon's year of decision, it became a terrible year of missed opportunities. A year in which Sharon betrayed his historic role.

One cannot exaggerate the importance of the year when Sharon missed his chance. It was a year when the face of the Middle East was fundamentally changed. It was a year when Arab extremism was repulsed. A year in which Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was defeated, Yasser Arafat was beaten, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was educated. A year that created amazing new geo-strategic circumstances, which enable Israel to begin to carry out the major withdrawal from the territories in optimal conditions.

The 2003 window of opportunity has not yet been shut. Until the elections in the United States, Israel still has a chance to take the initiative into its hands. A few more months of grace remain until the final disintegration of the sober-minded Israeli consensus. Not more. During the first half of 2004, Sharon is still capable of repairing what he spoiled in 2003. But time is short. Time is very short.

Israeli history seems to have designated the role of the commander of the great withdrawal for Sharon. Despite all his shortcomings, Sharon is the last Israeli leader who has the gravitas required to carry out such a major existential task. Despite all his defects, Sharon may be the only Israeli leader capable of preventing the act of withdrawal from becoming an act that undermines stability. However, for precisely that reason, the responsibility placed on him is heavy. If he continues to maneuver and to waste time, he won't prevent the withdrawal that is so hard for him to digest. He will only prevent the possibility that this withdrawal will be orderly. If he continues to drag his feet, he won't save the settlements from which it is so difficult for him to part. He will be responsible for the fact that the international guillotine will not distinguish between one settlement and the next. It will chop off all of them.

Sharon's words at the Herzliya Conference are not empty words. Behind them lie thought and a plan. Apparently, there is also a real intention behind them. However, after his dismal failure in 2003, Sharon remains without credit and without time. If he doesn't actually evacuate the first settlement during the next two months, his political fate is sealed. History will not give him another chance.