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There are a lot of advantages to finding a Palestinian "partner" who will take up the responsibility for Gaza after the Israeli disengagement. This is not only in the matter of the rule of law and order after the withdrawal, and concern about rehabilitation and developing Gaza from the destruction of the intifada. It's enough to imagine what the evacuation would look like if it were under fire. Thousands of settlers designated for evacuation would crowd into Gush Katif, thousands of their supporters would fortify themselves in the settlements, and thousands of soldiers and police would come to evict them. And it would all be within mortar range of Khan Yunis, with the crowding increasing the likelihood of harm being done.

The IDF, faithful to the instructions of the political echelon that "there won't be a withdrawal under fire," plans to occupy large parts of Khan Yunis to safeguard the withdrawal. The experience from recent military operations in the Strip show that such a takeover would result in many Palestinian casualties, and possibly Israeli, as well. If there is a Palestinian partner who can keep the quiet, that horror would be avoided and Israel would be able to avoid further destruction of Gaza just to leave it.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is aware of this scenario and nonetheless is in no hurry to look for a Palestinian interlocutor. Ever since Arafat's departure, Sharon has displayed a lack of enthusiasm for the changes anticipated in the Palestinian Authority and has reiterated his known demands for a proven war against terror and thorough reforms as a condition for talks.

In his instructions to the defense establishment, Sharon said that if there is a genuine cease-fire from the Palestinian side, Israel will respond with goodwill gestures; meanwhile, Israel will sit on the fence and wait for developments on the other side.

Sharon's problem is that there are no free partners. Any Palestinian leader replacing Arafat, like Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), will demand a price for participating in the disengagement. That price will be a "political horizon," meaning a connection between the disengagement and the road map, leading to a Palestinian state in the territories and a promise backed up by the international community that Gaza is only the begining and not the end.

Abbas, and any other leader, will not be able to accept Gaza and rest, as Sharon proposes. He will want the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well.

Sharon's policy has an internal contradiction. It marks the Green Line as the future border for Israel through its readiness to withdraw to the very last millimeter from Gaza, and in moving the fence in the West Bank to the 1967 line. At the same time, Sharon wants to hold onto half the West Bank for years to come.

As long as Arafat was in power, it was possible to bridge the contradiction with the tactical explanation about the absence of a partner. With Abbas, a legitimate partner in Sharon's eyes as well, that will be a lot more difficult. If he manages to take control over the territory, Abbas will demand pressing ahead with the road map. If he fails and chaos grows in the territories, so will the calls for posting international troops there.

The disengagement plan, which looked like a daring, ground-breaking initiative in 2003, has already turned into a self-evident concession. Gaza is already in the Palestinians' pocket. The diplomatic campaign that renewed after the U.S. elections is now about the next stage - and Sharon will need all his wisdom, political wile and influence over Bush to escape the nightmare of a demand for a deep withdrawal from the West Bank.