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If one considers the effort the athletes are making at the Olympics to be first and to break speed records, then the pace of our government in moving ahead with the disengagement plan is that of a leisurely walk in the park. The comparison is actually a poor one, because in Athens energy is concentrated on the real thing - athletic achievement - while Israel is garnering its strength to fulfill a less important goal, merely involving human life and the image of the country, if not its future.

From the beginning, the schedule for the implementation of the disengagement plan lacked the essential urgency to transform it into a national challenge to be achieved as soon as possible. Instead of placing this important initiative at the center of the government's activity and focusing the public's attention on it, the plan has melted into bureaucratic moves made behind closed doors, some of which are made by only a few dozen people.

Preparations for withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria are not in the public consciousness and have not become central to public discourse. As a result, there is no atmosphere of preparation for something that is really going to happen. Disengagement is still perceived as a possibility only, as a declaration of intent with a question mark floating over it. The not-quite-real-enough form that disengagement has taken has its price: It means that the lion's share of the public is unconnected to the process and uninterested in it. The political moves developing as the prime minister attempts to create a coalition favorable to his initiative are taking place without the involvement of the people. Coalition negotiations do not focus on the withdrawal plan and its implementation, but on portfolios, social issues, and matters of religion and state.

The mantle of normalcy worn by these negotiations is a great missed opportunity; it leads to delay which in turn leads to the evaporation of the critical national significance of the decision. Advances are not being offered to settlers to be evacuated, there is no tumult of dismantling, no sense of the army moving its facilities out of the Gaza Strip ahead of the submission of a bill dealing with the process of disengagement to the Knesset.

The style and tone the government has given the disengagement plan has already had its results: Egypt has let up pressure on Yasser Arafat to reform the Palestinian Authority's security forces and postponed the ultimatum it had given him in this matter, which minimizes the chance for the creation of a governing body that will take responsibility for the Gaza Strip after Israel's withdrawal. The Israeli right is taking advantage of this time to organize for a struggle against withdrawal, both at the political level and in creating a public mood. Meanwhile, the U.S. is allowing Ariel Sharon to maintain the status quo, including continuing to evade dismantling the outposts and avoiding decisions regarding limiting the development of settlements to existing boundaries.

Worst of all, the more time that passes between the decision in principle to disengage and the implementation of disengagement, the greater the danger that Palestinian terror organizations will be able to carry out a mega-attack that will prevent implementation of disengagement. And the chance increases of an extreme right-wing Israeli making an attempt on the prime minister's life.

Sharon is taking significant political steps to create the necessary backing to carry out disengagement. He has also put into motion the planning and administrative system that will lay the organizational groundwork for disengagement. His failure lies in his not creating facts on the ground that highlight the seriousness of his intentions, and that he has not worked to engender public support for his plan. This may not be coincidental. It is very possible that the prime minister is waiting, just like Arafat is, to see who will be sitting in the White House in three months, and then he will decide whether to stick to his plan or frame it and hang it on the wall.