The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

The day after Gaza...

Assuming Prime Minister Ariel Sharon succeeds in passing his budget next week, the disengagement plan should take place on schedule. Now is the time to think about what happens next.

Post-disengagement scenarios are on the drawing board. The options are vast, and matching strategic interests with possible strategic directions is not an easy task.

Domestically, it is likely that the Likud-Labor love affair will sour. The Labor Party will need to find an identity different from the post-disengagement Likud. Facing new elections, the Sharon-Netanyahu feud will flare, which may lead to the reshaping of the political map almost beyond recognition, with new coalitions and alliances emerging.

Internationally, pressure to move into the road map will increase; once the disengagement is behind us, that pressure will be focused mostly on Israel. If the Palestinians implement their road map obligations regarding security, economic and political reforms, Israel will be required to implement its obligations concerning a settlement freeze, dismantling of outposts and a pullback to the September 2000 positions.

President George W. Bush has been withholding pressure on Israel until after the disengagement from Gaza; but then the international community, led by the US, will likely determine that Phase II of the road map should commence.

Phase II opens with the option of establishing a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries. There are no other options mentioned and since Bush has stated that there should be a Palestinian state, it seems likely that no other options will be presented.

PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas states that Phase II should be skipped in favor of moving directly into Phase III permanent status negotiations. Abbas contends that a Palestinian state with provisional borders is another long-term interim agreement that will produce frustration and may lead to another round of violence.

Oslo taught us that nothing is more permanent than an interim agreement. Perhaps there is logic in moving directly to the end game? Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed-Rabbo of the Geneva Accords support the view that the end game is known, the issues are as clear as the solutions, and postponing will achieve nothing.

That makes sense. However, it forces the question: Are we really ready? Can Israelis and Palestinians trust each other enough to make the concessions necessary to create real peace after more than four years of bloody violence? If we do open up permanent status negotiations, can we reach an agreement, or will it be Camp David all over again?

The so-called constructive ambiguity of the road map, leaving so much so unclear, makes it difficult to determine what to do. What is a state with provisional borders? What will these borders be? Will that state be viable? Will there be territorial contiguity? Are there advantages to negotiating permanent status on a state-to-state basis?

Abbas fears that creating a Palestinian state with provisional borders will remove the Palestinian issue from the international agenda while many of the subjects remain open and festering. Israel claims that before reaching permanent agreements on borders and issues such as Jerusalem, we must first see how the Palestinians behave as a state.

The existence of a Palestinian state will limit Israeli's ability to invade the Palestinian territory. The international community acted against Iraq when it invaded sovereign Kuwait. While it is likely that the US would invoke its veto power in the Security Council, Israel does not wish to witness a debate in the council on possible sanctions after invading another sovereign state, particularly one that the international community supports and is laboring to create.

There will be a substantive change in the international political environment once the State of Palestine comes into being. That change will undoubtedly impact on the Israeli-Palestinian bilateral relationship even if the occupation is not fully behind us.

In the final analysis, there seems to be sufficient wisdom in having another interim agreement prior to seeking a final resolution in an "end-of-conflict" agreement. There is only a small chance that Sharon would be able to make the concessions necessary to reach such an agreement. Likewise, the Palestinian leadership needs time to convince its public to make concessions on the refugee issue so as to reach agreement with Israel.

Thus it does not seem wise to speed up the process; more time is needed to heal some of the open wounds still bleeding and being treated. The Israeli and Palestinian leaderships must demonstrate that they can relate to each other with respect and dignity. They need to stop empowering the spoilers and extremists each time these act against the interests of both peoples.

The sides are still incapable of resolving the problem of transferring authority back to the Palestinians in Jericho and other West Bank cities. It is not yet clear to Israel that the Palestinians are really acting against terrorism. Can one imagine being able to confront the issue of dividing sovereignty in Jerusalem?

Time must be a factor in the rebuilding of relations. But time alone is not sufficient. The sides have taken on responsibilities and obligations, there is the road map, there is an international Quartet to manage the process. These must all come together to enable us to get beyond these very first and fragile steps of recreating a peace process before moving on to its final resolution.

The writer is the Israeli co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.