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Two Middle Eastern countries withdrew this year from territories they had held for decades. One carried out a partial, measured withdrawal, and continues to rule over a neighboring people, its important cities and national symbols. The other removed its forces completely from the occupied country, regrouped within its borders and severed itself from the sources of its rulers' power and its officers' livelihood.

The situation in the international arena is the reverse: whoever retreats less, earns more respect. Ariel Sharon, who led Israel to disengage from Gaza, embarks today on a diplomatic victory tour at the United Nations General Assembly. The leaders who will meet him will grant him public absolution for his bad conduct in the past, for the 1953 Kibiya raid and the Lebanon War and sowing the settlements in the territories. They will speak instead of his sober vision, his political courage and the chance he gave peace.

While Sharon gets all buddy-buddy with Bush, Putin and Blair, and hosts his Jewish donors and supporters in his Madison Avenue hotel, Bashar Assad will stay home and will only be able to watch the international gathering on television. Syria received no praise or gratitude for its withdrawal from Lebanon. On the contrary, the Syrian president was afraid to come to New York, for fear he would not be issued a visa or would encounter unpleasant questions about his responsibility for the murder of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri.

It's nothing personal: just two or three years ago, Assad and his wife, Asma, were welcomed in the palaces of European leaders with pomp and circumstance, as representatives of the new generation of Arab leadership that lived and studied in the West and surfs the Internet. Then, they left Sharon back at his ranch, isolated and ostracized because of the occupation and the checkpoints and the assassinations. Only George W. Bush in America was willing to receive him, and there, too, they leaked that it wasn't out of love, but only political interests.

The reason for the different treatment Sharon and Assad are now receiving is not their actual actions, but rather how they acted. It's not the actual withdrawal from territories that brought about the change in the prime minister's standing, but rather the fact that he opted to withdraw on his own. Sharon will reap the "initiative premium" in New York today.

Assad was coerced into leaving Lebanon by a Security Council resolution initiated by France and the United States, and they don't hand out prizes for forced withdrawals like that.

Several important lessons may be drawn from this. First, it's preferable to take the initiative. Whoever offers to relinquish territory on their own pays less and gets more. Sharon expressed willingness to leave Gaza and then bargained with the Americans for the recompense, until he purchased "the Bush letter" with the evacuation of four settlements in the West Bank. Assad was kicked out of Lebanon, with no right of appeal. Had he initiated the withdrawal himself and tossed in some gesture on terrorism, he could have demanded financial aid in return, and maybe also renewed negotiations over the Golan Heights.

The second lesson is that the total dependence of small countries on the superpowers has once again been demonstrated. The new rules of the game in Lebanon were laid down far from the region, in Washington and Paris. Sharon will enjoy the encounter with his colleagues, not because they have fallen in love with his captivating personality, but thanks to backing from President Bush, who acted as global marketing manager for the disengagement. The settlements were destroyed, to a large degree, because Israel did not win international recognition for their existence.

And third, those who were hoping for international pressure to get Israel out of the territories and release it all at once from the burden of occupation need to reconsider their position. Syria fulfilled the meaning of the slogan Dai Lakibush (End the occupation), but it looks like the regional leper. Israel sold a defective asset that it did not want, and is now deemed the source of hope and optimism. It seems that the long way round is sometimes easier and shorter.