Bibi Is Banking on Sharon

Anyone who manages to get beyond the vitriol, mostly merited, directed at Benjamin Netanyahu since his resignation has to confront the sobering thought that he may yet be the big winner in all of this.

Anyone who manages to get beyond the vitriol, mostly merited, directed at Benjamin Netanyahu since his resignation has to confront the sobering thought that he may yet be the big winner in all of this.

For this to happen, Netanyahu is banking on none other than Ariel Sharon. This week's Haaretz poll already indicated a popularity bounce for Bibi, but the real test will be whether the disengagement is publicly viewed as a success or failure. That principally depends on avoiding a return to violence. Fortunately for Bibi's political prospects, but unfortunately for the rest of us, if the prime minister continues his aggressive unilateralist and no-partnership policies toward the Palestinians, violence remains the most likely outcome.

The unpalatable nature of the messenger should not blind us to the veracity in part of his message. The disengagement plan to the extent to which it can be described as a plan at all is a bad one in its inception and implementation. Its only saving grace is that the one worse option would be for the settlers and IDF to stay in Gaza.

Netanyahu's criticism of unilateralism that the withdrawal is perceived by the Palestinian street as a victory for violence and that Israel cannot credibly seek reciprocal commitments from the PA is a correct one. The fact that after 18 months, as we approach zero hour, there are no final arrangements on border crossings, the economic regime, or even rubble disposal, attests to the irresponsible Israeli official preparation. People close to the budgetary approval process in the U.S. Congress have confided to me that even the $2.1 billion request for supplementary disengagement assistance to Israel is being mishandled, as it will come too late for the appropriation's cycle.

But the most glaring shortcoming is the failure to plan for the day after. IDF Military Intelligence Chief Aharon Ze'evi testified last month to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that terror can be expected to intensify post-Gaza if the peace process does not continue and the Palestinians lose hope of an independent state.

This is a view echoed by many senior defense officials, who anticipate that violence will emanate primarily from the West Bank. In the absence of a realistic political negotiating option to end occupation in the West Bank, violence is compelling. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will try to prevent it, and his efforts can be enhanced on this front, but the chances are not good. Netanyahu is familiar with Sharon and the absence of a plan for renewing the peace process and hope post-Gaza. The pursuant likelihood of security deterioration becomes Netanyahu's trump card against Sharon.

Sharon, belatedly, understands that the Israeli interest requires a confrontation with the settler movement and its ideological goals. This is indeed bold. But he has yet to grasp that this initial showdown and evacuation is only half of the equation for guaranteeing Israel's secure future. The other half is to build a solid partnership based on common interests with the moderate Palestinian leadership in order to overcome the extremists and end the conflict.

This missing link may be Sharon's undoing.

The prime minister has suggested that after disengagement we enter a pre-roadmap phase conditioned on exclusively Palestinian deliverables, that Israel look inward to domestic issues and the political process be conveniently parked.

But the die has been cast in Gaza and the real new dividing line in the Israeli debate revolves not around how one relates to territory, but how one relates to time. Can and should Israel spend the coming decades repeating the experience of 2004-5 in a series of piecemeal mini-disengagements from the West Bank, or does Israel take a definitive and decisive approach to fixing her borders with one push (let us say in the term of the next Knesset)?

Let's call this the "tinkering camp" versus the "fix-it camp." Former South African president F.W. De Klerk, in describing the process there, famously commented that the tail of a dog is removed in one and not several cuts. Any hard-headed realist who has lived through the past year in Israel will not want to repeat it several times. Israel's security, economy, social investment needs and internal cohesion are best served by ending this clearly, definitively, and now. To paraphrase the cry of the orange ribbon-wearing people, "Tinkering will explode in our faces." But Sharon's advocacy of long-term interim arrangements and rejection of permanent status negotiations, despite the change in Palestinian leadership, would seem to place him in the tinkering camp. Netanyahu if he adheres to a recipe for reciprocity that somehow manages to avoid making demands on Israel would be there with him and under these circumstances would likely succeed him.

Although it is in Sharon's political self-interest, as well as the national interest, to bid farewell to the "tinkering camp" post-Gaza, it is antithetical to his view of the conflict.Sharon could then become his own worst enemy and Netanyahu's unintended ally. Israel will then need to find a new leader from the fix-it camp, and this will be neither Netanyahu nor Sharon.

The writer served as policy adviser to Yossi Beilin and was the lead Isreali drafter of the Geneva Initiative.