Ariel Sharon's Gaza plan may be suspect, but it could still help to build a broader peace

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Today's vote by the Israeli Knesset on Ariel Sharon's plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza could indeed be described as historic. If it is passed, and that is still far from certain, it will mark the first time in a generation that Israel has voluntarily dismantled its settlements. Depending on who you listen to, that in turn could mark the end of the Israeli dream of a biblical Greater Israel, the beginning of a civil war with the settlers or, more optimistically, the start of a meaningful new relationship with the Palestinians.

Today's vote by the Israeli Knesset on Ariel Sharon's plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza could indeed be described as historic. If it is passed, and that is still far from certain, it will mark the first time in a generation that Israel has voluntarily dismantled its settlements. Depending on who you listen to, that in turn could mark the end of the Israeli dream of a biblical Greater Israel, the beginning of a civil war with the settlers or, more optimistically, the start of a meaningful new relationship with the Palestinians.

In the Middle East, of course, it never pays either to be too optimistic or too expectant. The region lurches from crisis to crisis with each new initiative beset by the power of old antagonisms and the virulent capacity of both Israelis and Palestinians to spend their time quarrelling among themselves rather than reaching for the future. The crisis this time round concerns most immediately the Israelis, although formally it has everything to do with the Palestinians, from whose territory Sharon now proposes to disengage.

That it should be Sharon, the architect of settlements and their remorseless expansion in the Gaza Strip, and more particularly the occupied West Bank, in the past 20 years, has aroused the ire of the settlers and their backers among the more right-wing parties in his coalition. To hand back the settlements now, they argue, is tantamount to giving up Israel's claim to its historic homeland. Worse, by doing so unilaterally the Likud government threatens only to increase the violence and the ambitions of the Palestinians, who will be emboldened by the belief that they have forced the Israelis out of Gaza, just as they forced them out of southern Lebanon. It is an extreme argument but, arousing as it does deep- seated religious feeling, it is enough to threaten real violence as Israeli troops move in to remove forcibly 8,000 of their own people from the 21 Gaza settlements involved.

And yet there are strong reasons for Sharon to adopt this course and to pursue it in the face of resignations from within his own coalition. Chief among them is simple demography. On present trends the Israelis could be outnumbered by Arabs within the territory run by the Israeli government in another generation or two. Among the many nightmares of its rulers is the thought that the Palestinians could then demand not a separate state but a unified country with one-man, one-vote.

Gaza, in today's world of advanced weaponry, has little security value to Israel provided that it can stop the rocket attacks of Palestinian militants. Hence Israel's repeated incursions into the refugee camps. At the same time a dismantling of the settlements has gained the support of the opposition Labour Party, who have long been calling for such a move and whose leader, Shimon Peres, would love to re-enter a coalition government and help lead further moves towards peace with the Palestinians.

The great question, however, is: where will a withdrawal from Gaza lead? And where does Sharon intend it to go? The Palestinians fear that it will be a full-stop, that Sharon's real intention is to withdraw from Gaza and a few isolated West Bank settlements, the better to consolidate his position in the major West Bank centres where some 200,000 settlers are now firmly ensconced. And this view has found a good deal of support from the recent remarks of Dov Weisglass, one of the prime minister's closest advisers, who has called the Gaza plan a tactic to "prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state".

Even if this were true, however, there is a case for arguing that the cause of peace in the Middle East is better served by this small step than no step at all. Ultimately the central question of peace will not be decided today. It will take the involvement of the US president after the election and a better leadership than either Palestine or Israel possesses to do that. But a parliament that says yes to this move may yet find itself ready for the much bigger withdrawals that a settlement of the Palestinian question demands.

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