Tributes should be paid where they are due. First to the Israeli prime minister. In December 2003, when he made the improbable announcement that he intended to hand control of Gaza to the Palestinians, Mr Sharon received little credit for his decision. At worst, he was accused of a cynical propaganda ploy; at best he was chided for promising something he could not deliver.
He pursued the withdrawal from Gaza with the same dogged single-mindedness that he has applied in the past to other less noble endeavours. In the process, he lost a part of his ruling coalition; more recently he lost his senior Cabinet minister and potential Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet he persisted, soliciting support from the Knesset and Israeli public opinion when his own cabinet faltered. To have stayed in power and kept his promise is a considerable political feat.
Tribute should be paid, second, to the Israeli operation, military and civilian, which has been conducted with exemplary discipline and restraint. Final preparations were completed yesterday in good order. Israeli troops sealed off the territory occupied since 1967; it halted public transport into the region and placed guards on Israeli settlements, leaving open the way out, but not the way in. Palestinian police fanned out across Gaza and began their patrols.
And third, credit must go to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, for the patience and moderation he has shown in the face of sporadic provocations and for the way in which anti-Israeli violence has subsided in the months since his election to succeed Yassir Arafat.
It is too early to say that the withdrawal has been accomplished peacefully. The most intransigent Israeli settlers may have left their fiercest resistance until last. Palestinian militants for their part may have been biding their time to show their true colours until the Israelis have gone. The next few days and weeks could expose some unpalatable truths.
But even the best of outcomes, a peaceful transition, can be only a beginning. From now on, the two leaders who have shepherded this withdrawal face new responsibilities. Mr Abbas must stamp his authority on the embryonic Palestinian state. The Palestinians must show that they will not squander control of the territory they have rightfully regained. The parliamentary elections, set for January, will be an early test. But those groups tempted to press their cause by violence must also stay their hand if the Palestinian Authority is to attract and retain the outside financial support it needs.
The Israelis, for their part, must show forbearance. While entitled to defend their country's security, they should not leap to intervene at the first hint of unrest in Gaza. Palestinian militants should be given no pretext for any fresh resort to violence. And, a tall order though it must seem at such a delicate time, Mr Sharon needs to intimate his future intentions.
He should clarify as soon as possible whether the withdrawal from Gaza is a withdrawal with no planned sequel, designed only to solidify Israel's presence in the West Bank, or whether it is but the first stage of a progressive withdrawal from all occupied territories. A clear statement that it is the latter would offer the best hope, not only of a stable Gaza, but of an eventual Middle East peace.Reuse content