The Gathering Storm

Ariel Sharon has shown impressive determination and willingness to pay the personal and political price of his disengagement plan. But dangerous cracks are appearing in the thin ground on which Israeli democracy has so far managed to stand in spite of ruptures that are tearing it apart.

The decisions on the disengagement plan to be made by the cabinet today and the Knesset on Tuesday may be essential steps, but they still will not ensure its implementation. The compensation bill to be approved by the cabinet today, and Tuesday's expected approval by the Knesset of today's cabinet decision on disengagement, are impressive testimony to Ariel Sharon's determination and his willingness to pay the personal and political price.

But it must be noted that these steps are limited in themselves and what is more worrying, the danger of them being retracted lurks at every turn. The bill to be submitted to the Knesset is a reiteration of the cabinet decision of four months ago.

The fact that the National Religious Party is seriously considering remaining in the cabinet even after the Knesset approves the bill is suspicious - it shows that its wording is sufficiently ambiguous to provide the opponents of disengagement with an excuse to remain in the cabinet and hope for the best - from their point of view.

In fact, the bill states specifically that the plan does not mean evacuation of settlements. If withdrawal becomes a reality it will be brought before the cabinet for special approval, and if so, it will be divided into four stages, each of which will require its own cabinet approval.

While this is ostensibly solid proof of the prime minister's intention of carrying out his plan, several roadside bombs have knowingly been placed along the way that can blow it up. While Sharon's plan that the convoluted wording of the bill is lip service to keep the coalition in one piece, the opposing ministers expect the complexity of the process to impede its implementation or to buy time in the hope that an external factor will do so.

One real danger of the plan is its being conditioned on a referendum. The demand for a referendum is gaining ground, and Sharon's firm and correct position opposing it will have to withstand the test of time and the pressures of the next few weeks.

The possible change in the U.S. administration is another obstacle. A Kerry victory may bring a new American political conception to the fore with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with different players and commitments, thus creating incentives for disengagement's demise.

The main danger is the tough opposition to withdrawal by the settlers and their supporters. The more real the idea of withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank becomes, the more violent and irresponsible the struggle against it will appear to get.

The intention to disengage arouses great bitterness from the depths of the settlers' souls. They feel their world is crashing down around them and the state is betraying them.

The authentic frustration of the settlers is not to be taken lightly. In the eyes of many, Israel that begins its withdrawal from the territories is a country with its existence in question. Their distress is no less real than that of Israelis who believe that the torpedoing of the plan will mean the end of the state.

The anger of the settlers and the right that identifies with them is gathering momentum. Its energy is being channeled into protests that threaten to undermine the foundations of the state. Dangerous cracks are appearing in the thin ground on which Israeli democracy has so far managed to stand in spite of ruptures that are tearing it apart.

The demand to prefer halakha (Jewish law) over the law of the land, to exclude Israel's Arab citizens from the process of approving disengagement, to deviate from accepted norms of debate and decision-making, to shut up opposition by means both administrative and juridical, are all clouds that presage the storm.

Violence will later emerge from its lair with all of its destructive force. If the country does not manage to impose its authority on the minority opposing disengagement, it will open the gate to its disintegration.