Sharon as Gorbachev

By Aluf Benn

Haaretz

Adar1 13, 5765

Ariel Sharon's government made history yesterday with its decision on the evacuation of the settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. The dry, brief evacuation orders issued after the cabinet meeting and bearing the signatures of A. Sharon and Mofaz herald the beginning of the end of the Israeli settlement enterprise in the territories. The fence route approved by the cabinet marks the change in Israel's war goals vis-a-vis the Palestinians - from one of guarding every centimeter until the enemy gives in, to a rearguard battle to save the blocs of settlements, to annex Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel and Efrat.

The prime minister is today enjoying international support like he has never before experienced. Jordan and Egypt are sending their ambassadors back without waiting for the settlers to be evacuated; and U.S. and European statesmen are enthusiastically applauding Sharon's courage. The man who once symbolized only war, destruction and oppression has suddenly become the symbol of hope in the region.

But this support will last, at best, until the gate closes on the last of the settlers to be evacuated. The world expects Sharon to be Mikhail Gorbachev - the leader who made the crack in the dam, which was followed by the flood.

Gorbachev didn't plan on dismantling the Soviet Union, but merely to somewhat loosen the shackles of the Communist regime so that he could survive a little better. But the moment he allowed freedom to trickle in, no one could stop it, and the regime was buried beneath it.

In Washington, in Paris, in London, as well as in Ramallah, Cairo and Amman, the same fate is being wished for Sharon - that the next withdrawal from the West Bank is even quicker and deeper; that with Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, and with security calm, Israel will lose its remaining arguments and excuses and will be forced to pull out of Ofra, Beit El and Hebron, and then Beit Hanina, Sheikh Jarrah and most of the Old City in Jerusalem too.

Sharon has no intentions of racing to the 1967 lines, and he will try to delay the process. In Israel, they are still debating the disengagement, the level of violence of the pullout opponents and a referendum. In the international arena, the withdrawal from Gaza looks like a done deal, and the political debate is already centering on the next stage - a final-status agreement or an interim arrangement.

Sharon wants to crawl toward interim agreement in the West Bank; Abbas wants to gallop to a final settlement. Abbas enjoys widespread support in Europe and has supporters in the U.S. administration too; the White House is going with Sharon, and sticking to the road map's interim settlement.

Sharon has five weeks to get the budget approved, and thereafter, in early April, he will go to Washington for his victory tour. The treasury is already working on the aid package that Sharon will request from President George Bush.