The 9 A.M. Test

The precedent of the Gaza Strip pullout shows that Israel should be prepared to leave the West Bank while there is still time.

There is no need to wait for the red telephone to ring at 3 A.M. to assess the good sense and decision-making ability of three of the four candidates for Kadima's leadership. Suffice it to tune in at 9 A.M. to their positions in the cabinet debate on the evacuation-compensation bill to understand whom we are dealing with.

The contenders, claiming to have distinct temperaments and views, and especially leadership skills, are hastily converging and calling on Ehud Olmert to desist from the legislative move.

Meir Sheetrit says that approving the bill would be a mistake that could lead to undermining the stability of several West Bank settlements. Tzipi Livni argues that as long as there is no agreement with the Palestinians and no border has been set, the idea must not be put on the agenda. Meanwhile, Shaul Mofaz asserts that dealing with the proposal would weaken Israel in any "future" negotiations with the Palestinians. Avi Dichter has made no recorded comment on the issue.

This, then, is a snapshot of Kadima's leadership: a bunch of conservatives who recite texts that herald openness and forward thinking, but who are entrenched in an outdated worldview that they are afraid to let go of.

The starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians, which began in Oslo in 1993 and continued during the terms of Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon and Olmert, is that the relations between the two nations must undergo a radical change. Israel's leaders, from both the right and the left, reached the conclusion that the state's safety and welfare could not be preserved for long in the circumstances created by the 1967 Six-Day War.

Even Ariel Sharon, who contributed more than anyone to the destructive mishmash between Israel and the Palestinians, understood this and translated his insight into the disengagement plan.

Olmert, during his short term as prime minister, voiced the view that Israel's presence in the West Bank must be reduced drastically and hence drafted the convergence idea. The evacuation-compensation proposal is intended to advance this concept and start its implementation. The proposal is based on the recognition that sooner or later Israel will have to part with most of the West Bank, and it had better start preparing for it now, in a controlled manner.

By objecting to this legislation, Kadima's would-be leaders are opposing a policy of the Olmert government in which some of them (Livni and Mofaz) were actively involved in drafting. Negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, and the strategic dialogue with the United States, are nothing if not an admission that there must be a basic shift in relations between both sides - and this belief stems from Israel's desire to preserve a Zionist identity.

The evacuation-compensation proposal is timely and reflects a principle on which most of the public is agreed - freeing Israel from the burden of becoming a binational state. It is the right move, too, because it could rattle the status of the settlements and halt their development, thus weakening the core issue blocking a settlement with the Palestinians.

This legislative initiative is also morally correct: It is intended to restore the freedom of choice - of where to live - to tens of thousands of Jewish settlers. These are some 80,000 people, about a third of the West Bank settlers, who decided to live beyond the Green Line not for ideological reasons but due to the financial incentives offered by the state. In the first stage, the evacuation-compensation bill would apply to some 30,000 people - half of the population living east of the separation fence.

The practical difficulties involved in implementing the law, if it is enacted, are considerable, but they are marginal compared to its end - releasing the state from the occupation and drastically reducing its presence in the Palestinian territories. Those who are clutching at the expected implementation hardships - lack of resources, internal conflict, a possible toughening of the Palestinian stance - as Kadima's candidates are doing, are clinging to the existing situation and foiling any chance of changing it.

The ongoing distress of 8,500 evacuees from the Gaza Strip stems, first and foremost, from their refusal to acknowledge reality: They did not respond in time to the Sela administration's pleas to begin the required procedures of resettling within the state. The precedent of the Gaza Strip pullout shows that Israel should be prepared to leave the West Bank while there is still time.