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Ariel Sharon is experiencing something that happened to his predecessors during the past decade - he has reached the conclusion there is a need for a fundamental change in the relationship between the state of Israel and the Palestinians. This is what Yitzhak Rabin believed when he signed the Oslo agreement; this is what his successor Shimon Peres maintained; this is what Ehud Barak understood.

The good intentions of all three were foiled - Rabin was murdered, Peres was defeated and removed from power by Benjamin Netanyahu, and Barak lost his government. Sharon is losing the support of his party. The country's leaders moved too fast, at a pace that did not match the ability to adjust of the political apparatus on which they are dependent.

This does not mean the prime ministers were wrong. The need to divert the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation from the bloody path it's on is becoming clearer as the years pass. They identified this need sooner than most of the politicians because the things one sees from the prime minister's seat, one does not see from the opposition bench, or even from the post of a minister. It appears that only when one reaches the tip of the ruling pyramid, the point at which all information, assessments, pressures, converge, the eyes become wide open and the picture becomes clear.

Apparently, when supreme responsibility is on their shoulders, the order of preferences also changes. Demography begins to play a role in the considerations, so does the morale of the people, the ability of the army to withstand long-term pressure, the economy, the views of the international community - and even the image of the country as a violent giant that is crushing a people fighting for its freedom.

This is the background to the birth of Sharon's disengagement plan. On the face of it, if we ignore all suspicion of dubious motives, it reflects the Prime Minister's understanding that the time has come to put an end to the lethal routine of the armed confrontation. This is not, necessarily, a good plan - an initiative based on dialogue with the Palestinian Authority would be preferable.

But it encompasses a precious promise, an expression of the intention to shake off the existing situation, and also a revolutionary willingness to pay a heavy territorial price for this. In practice, Sharon is declaring he has come to terms with the need to compromise with the Palestinians and that he agrees to withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip and about 90 percent of the West Bank.

This is a major change in his position and will be the point from which the relations between the two peoples will be defined .

The Likud ministers who will today discuss the disengagement plan that they received on Friday have tremendous moral and personal responsibility when they come to the meeting with the intention to vote against the plan. They will join the opponents that had foiled an Israeli-Palestinian accord in the past decade.

They will have to stand before the majority of the public which, according to the polls, supports the plan and wishes for a settlement to the conflict. They will have to answer to the families of the fallen who will be killed in the coming days because of their insistence on maintaining the 16 settlements in the Gaza Strip.

The opposition within the Likud to Sharon's diplomatic initiative is being justified by arguments that are catchy - its weaknesses are pointed out, commitment to the decision of the Likud members at the referendum is stressed, and the shock that it will cause to the coalition is described.

However, behind these arguments stands a different motive, the same one that positioned Sharon before his election as prime minister in the camp of those opposed to the Oslo agreement. That stand is a refusal to give up on the territories, and the arrogant belief that it is possible to continue ruling another people.

Those who foil the disengagement plan sentence Israel to another 1,000 victims until the politicians and their supporters come to grips with the fact that achieving an accord with the Palestinians is essential to ensuring the future of the country.

If it turns out today that Sharon does not bring his plan to a vote in the cabinet, and that his intention was merely to create the impression that he tried to support it, then it will be he who will be infinitely responsible for its destructive consequences.