Sharon's own map

ISRAEL'S PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon made it clear recently that his plan for a unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip is not intended as a prelude to a comprehensive peace agreement but is meant to serve as a replacement for the road map to Mideast peace backed by President Bush. Only political timorousness can explain the silence of the White House as Sharon casts aside his commitment to Bush's road map.

There are some positive implications of Sharon's decisive move to dismantle settlements and remove about 8,000 settlers from Gaza. The furor from diehard settler groups and far-right politicians opposed to the withdrawal reflects their apprehension that Sharon -- the long-time maestro of settlement expansion -- has deserted them for practical reasons of security.

Extremist threats on Sharon's life, like similar threats against army officers, reflect a realization that Sharon, the erstwhile tank commander known as Mr. Security, has come to embrace principles and premises long common to the Israeli peace camp. Sharon's actions -- last week he was pushing his government to start paying compensation to settlers who will leave Gaza willingly -- imply that settlements are not sacrosanct, that when settlers come into conflict with Israel's security needs, those settlers must yield to the state. Perhaps most telling has been Sharon's warning to fellow Israelis that occupation of another people cannot be sustained.

Path-breaking as Sharon's withdrawal plan and its rationale may be, however, they fall short of what Israelis and Palestinians need to end their destructive conflict. Once his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is completed, Sharon told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, "it is very possible there will be a long period when nothing else happens."

"As long as there is no change in the leadership or policy of the Palestinians, Sharon asserted, "Israel will continue its war on terrorism and will stay in the territories that will remain after the implementation of disengagement."

Palestinians and the Israeli peace camp will hear this as confirmation of their suspicion that Sharon is withdrawing from Gaza only to tighten his grip on the West Bank. Sharon appeared to justify such suspicions when he acknowledged: "Today, we are also not following the road map."

The momentous issue of peace in the Middle East ought to be front and center in the upcoming presidential debates, and both Bush and John Kerry should declare their determination to persevere with the principles of the road map: negotiations leading to peaceful coexistence between Israel and a viable Palestinian state

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