The Pessimists Who Must Disengage

The first task of a national unity government will be to infuse the professionals in charge of implementing the disengagement with a new spirit - and convince them it is indeed possible to carry out.

In deciding to ask Shimon Peres to start talks today on bringing Labor into the coalition, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken an important step toward the bringing about the disengagement plan. However, he may just be hoisting an umbrella as a terrible storm brews.

There is no doubt Sharon's move suggests serious intent in carrying out the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank. It's also clear bringing Labor into government is an essential step to give Sharon a political base for implementing his plan.

It's also likely Sharon and Peres will agree on the basic principles guiding the new government. The difficulty they will encounter is operational - very soon it will become clear to them that those responsible for implementing the disengagement are pessimistic about their ability to carry it out, certainly not in the time table outlined.

The more the details of the plan are discussed, the worse becomes the mood of those responsible for carrying it out. They can identify in each of its details an obstacle capable of torpedoing the whole plan - indeed the accumulation of difficulties leads them to doubt if the plan is doable.

During brief moments of optimism they say the plan can be implemented, but not in a year and a half. In longer periods of pessimism they wonder if it is possible at all. The obstacle lies not in the political will, but in the reality on the ground - the conundrum created by the business of settlement.

The main difficulty those dealing with the plan see is the popular opposition to it. They are not only bothered by the threat of violent action from extreme radicals - as in the warning sounded last week by the head of the Shin Bet Security Services - but also by a rallying of the masses to prevent the withdrawal. Another expected problem is court appeals to delay the plan being implemented.

The action of the Palestinians poses yet another difficulty - they could disrupt the plan to the point of sinking it if they continue firing rockets into Israeli towns and attacking IDF forces and settlements in the Gaza Strip. This dynamic of continued conflict creates an impression Israel is withdrawing under fire.

There is a different difficulty in the political arena - the question of how stable will be Sharon's parliamentary majority, even with Labor in government, so he can pass the necessary decisions and legislation to carry out the disengagement. His weakness in this area is especially clear within his own Likud party and House faction.

Another area where serious problems are accumulating is in the international community. Despite broad support for the plan, it is becoming clear to those handling the details that influential parties would like to fit the withdrawal from Gaza into a format for a future departure from most of the West Bank territories.

In any case, these want Israel to surrender its unilateral approach to the plan. Economically, it is also becoming more and more clear that a link between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is essential.

The way government ministries are run makes implementing the plan difficult too. Despite the setting up of a committee of inter-ministerial directors, the well known habit of each ministry protecting its own interests has quickly surfaced. For example, there is a debate over the Defense Ministry budget because of the costs it will have to shoulder in the disengagement.

Peres has announced that one of the aims of the Labor Party, if it joins the government, will be to shorten the timetable for evacuating Gaza and the northern West Bank. He thinks speeding up the withdrawal process will create facts on the ground and force the settlers to come to terms with them.

As things stand at present, the first task of a national unity government will be to infuse the professionals in charge of implementing the disengagement with a new spirit - and convince them it is indeed possible to carry out.