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Rules of Disengagement

Ariel Sharon sticks to the road map.

11:15 AM, Dec 17, 2004 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Herzliya, Israel

TWO YEARS AGO, in a major speech at the annual Herzliya conference on national security, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon affirmed his embrace of the road map, the plan for peace in the Middle East laid out by President Bush in June 2002 that calls for a two state solution. Last year, in the same venue, a few miles north of Tel Aviv on Israel's Mediterranean coast, Sharon stunned the nation by declaring his intention to proceed with unilateral disengagement. Last night, Sharon once again used the forum presented by the packed closing banquet of the four-day extravaganza of panel discussions and policy addresses to announce a significant development in Israeli policy toward the conflict with the Palestinians.

But this time it was what he did not say that was most significant: Last year's plan for "unilateral disengagement" had become this year's "Disengagement Plan." The term "unilateral" had been dropped silently and without fanfare. But instructively: The reality is that the success of the Disengagement Plan will depend in no small measure on Israel's ability to forge cooperative relations with its partners, and in some cases to forge partners with whom to cooperate.

The security situation in Israel has changed a great deal over the last two years. The second intifada has been defeated. Terror has subsided. Saddam Hussein is in prison and Libya has renounced weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration and the Sharon government have developed a close working relationship. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has reengaged with Israel. Syria is sending messages that it is prepared for talks with Israel.

BUT NONE OF THAT quite gets to the heart of the matter, according to Uzi Dayan, former head of Israel's National Security Council under Sharon. The most important developments for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Dayan explained to me in the new suburban Tel Aviv headquarters of his fledgling center-left political movement, have been Sharon's unflinching determination to proceed with disengagement from Gaza and the West Bank, and Yasser Arafat's willingness, at long last, to disengage from the world.

Sharon certainly agreed about Arafat, and amplified the point in his Herzliya address: "The most genuine and greatest opportunity for building a new and different relationship with the Palestinians was created following the death of Yasser Arafat, who constituted the primary obstacle to peace." The demise of the corrupt dictator--who stole hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of dollars intended for the Palestinian people, abolished elections, enforced a violent cult of personality, supervised an educational system that preached hatred, and in the fall of 2000 renewed a war of terror against Israel--presented the "opportunity for an historic breakthrough in the relations between us and the Palestinians."

It was up to Israel to seize the initiative. "This is the hour, this is the time," proclaimed Sharon. "This is the national test." Indeed, one part of the Disengagement Plan remains all about Israel and strictly unilateral. As Itamar Yaar, the number two man on Israel's National Security Council, pointed out to me after Sharon's address, the decision itself to disengage, the exact territory from which to disengage initially, and the overall timing of the disengagement remain entirely in Israel's hands. And Yaar has no doubt that, by the end of 2005, Israel, as called for by Sharon's plan, will have completed disengagement from Gaza and from about 20 percent of the northern part of the West Bank.

But contrary to perceptions not only widespread abroad but common in Israel as well, Yaar said, Sharon understands that it is in Israel's strategic interest for disengagement to benefit the Palestinian people. To this end, Yaar and the National Security Council have been working on plans for nearly a year, involving all the ministries of the Israeli government, to guide the complex task of vacating land, uprooting and relocating citizens, and transferring power to a people that have never fully governed themselves.

FOR ISRAEL, disengagement also will involve delicate coordination with a host of partners--including first and foremost the Palestinians, but also Israel's Arab neighbors, the wider Arab world, the international community, and not least the United States. According to Shmuel Bar, a senior fellow at the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and one of the Herzliya Conference organizers, all will be put to the test.