What Does Condoleezza Know?

It is hard to find any person with authority in the Israeli government who knows for sure where the disengagement initiative is going. This historic move appears increasingly like a chain of improvisations.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lavished praise on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an interview she gave Larry King on the eve of Independence Day. Rice said Sharon was admirable for the leadership he is displaying in his willingness to divide the land of Israel.

Unlike Sharon, who in the past expressed admiration mainly for the shape of her legs, Rice admires his political vision and prowess. The man, who is to a large extent responsible for the settlement project, is now spearheading a process that leads to a two-state solution.

Is he indeed?

It is hard to find any person with authority in the Israeli government who knows for sure where the disengagement initiative is going. This historic move appears increasingly like a chain of improvisations rather than a calculated, well-considered outline that is being carried out judiciously. In contrast to the planning that the National Security Council invested into resettling the evacuees in existing communities within the Green Line, the prime minister suddenly drops an alternative proposal: to move them en bloc to the Nitzanim region. In contrast to the compensation fees determined by professional inter-ministerial committees, the Prime Minister's Bureau initiated a considerable increase in the sums to be paid the settlers. The evacuation date was also changed following all kinds of pressures, although the difficulty of the date, preceding Tisha B'Av, was known in advance.

But these are marginal manifestations of the main failure - nobody in the leadership knows what will happen on the day after the disengagement. No body or forum has debated the issue, either in the cabinet or in the security cabinet. The army is examining scenarios regarding the disengagement's implications, but these debates are not focused, because the government is not presenting its objectives.

On the eve of Independence Day, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced that the disengagement would lead to an improvement in security. The next day the prime minister confessed, at a meeting with Israel Defense Forces commanders at the President's Residence, that he was not sure it would lead to calm. Mofaz advocates giving the settlers' houses to the Palestinians, as this would save soldiers' lives. Sharon, in contrast, is indicating that he prefers his initial decision to destroy the houses, which means he sees no particular risk in doing so. Other IDF officers also disagree with Mofaz's pessimistic prediction. These contradictions expose the confusion and wavering of the Israeli leadership vis-a-vis the disengagement process and the ministers' inexplicable willingness to leave it exclusively in the hands of the prime minister, as though they bear no collective responsibility.

The state's leadership did not discuss whether it is in Israel's interest to continue the evacuation momentum in additional areas in the West Bank. No forum has examined how to bridge the gap between the Palestinian Authority's expectations to reach a final arrangement and Sharon's (implied) intention to make do, at the most, with a long-term interim arrangement. Even a decision of a mainly administrative character to choose from three alternatives - unilateral disengagement, a pullout coordinated with the PA or a pullout with the PA's full agreement - has not been reexamined after Yasser Arafat's death.

Moreover, the disengagement initiative derives apparently from the principle of dividing the land. It implies that Israel will renounce (at least) part of the territories and hand them over to the Palestinians. But in reality Sharon's initiative might crush once and for all the chance to settle the dispute on the basis of establishing a Palestinian state beside Israel. After all, if Sharon intends to make do with pulling out of the Gaza Strip and four settlements in northern Samaria, then entrench himself behind a wall and sever the economic ties between the PA and Israel, he will be condemning the Palestinians to conditions that would not enable them to build a viable state. By this seeming renunciation, Sharon is storing the fuel for reigniting the conflict on the day after the disengagement.

Does Condoleezza Rice know something that we don't?