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Out of Gaza

After all the buildup, it’s tempting to view the Knesset vote approving Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza-West Bank disengagement plan this week as an anti-climax. What more can be said of a political idea that already has been discussed half to death and isn’t even close to being implemented?

For starters, there is the passage of a moment in history to be acknowledged. Israel’s parliament took an action, the first of its kind in the state’s history, by voting formally to dismantle Jewish settlements and relinquish Israeli sovereign control in parts of what is commonly considered the historic Land of Israel. Whatever happens next, this itself is a milestone.

No previous Israeli prime minister has sought and won this authority from his parliament. Not Menachem Begin, whose Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement withdrew troops and settlers from the Sinai Peninsula but drew a line at the international border of historic Palestine. Not Yitzhak Rabin, whose Oslo agreement set up a process pointing implicitly toward withdrawal but did not spell out that goal or commit Israel to implementing its details.

There’s still a long road to travel before this week’s decision is translated into facts on the ground. In order to implement his plan, Sharon must hold on to the reins of power, which in Israel is no simple matter. His ruling Likud Party is deeply split between moderates who understand the historic imperative of territorial compromise, and hard-liners who still hope Israel can somehow maintain its rule over the territories and their restive Palestinian inhabitants. To hold his party together, the prime minister is under furious pressure to put his plan to a national referendum. That’s a quack recipe that promises unity but will deliver only months of delay and incitement. Sharon must move forward, build a new coalition and not be deterred by threats.

And then what? Sharon’s critics on the left make much of the fact that the plan includes no blueprint for stability on the Gaza side of the new border and no clear vision of further progress toward peace. Some skeptics have seized gleefully on the interview given to Ha’aretz earlier this month by a top Sharon adviser, Dov Weisglass, who described the disengagement plan as a way of relieving pressure on Israel and freezing further progress toward peace and compromise.

It’s possible that’s what Sharon has in mind. It’s equally possible that his eyes are set on the more expansive vision laid out repeatedly by another close aide, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who describes an end-game similar to the two-state compromise put on the table by Ehud Barak at Camp David. Sharon has hinted in recent days that his vision is closer to Olmert’s than to Weisglass’s, but no one knows for sure.

What we do know is that a doorway has been opened and a process set in motion. Its outcome is not inevitable, any more than the countless other Israeli plans that were declared inevitable and irreversible in the past, from the Oslo Accords to the West Bank settlement movement.

Whether disengagement comes to pass, and where it leads, will depend on decisions and actions taken in the coming months — by Israelis, who must move forward with determination and responsibility; by Palestinians, who must seize this opportunity to show Israelis at last that they have a partner to talk to, and by Israel’s friends around the world, beginning in this country, who must show Israel that they can be depended on to stand by it both in war and in peace.

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