Ever the military general who keeps his opponents guessing, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel announced a tactical retreat this week. The man most responsible for placing Jewish settlers on occupied lands wants some 7,500 Jewish settlers to leave the Gaza Strip.
If he's sincere and can pull it off, this mini-exodus would weaken political resistance among pro-settlement Israelis to the eventual - and necessary - removal of most settlers from the West Bank, a land with more religious and strategic value.
Mr. Sharon's gambit may reflect a shift in his thinking after more than three years of failing to end suicide bombings:
• Rather than bringing peace for Israel, the settlements only stir more Palestinian anger, creating insecurity.
• Without a more rapid withdrawal of Israeli presence from lands it conquered in 1967, the security of Israel as a Jewish state is in jeopardy. A high birth rate among Palestinians will make them the majority in a decade or so. Without disengaging from Gaza and most of the West Bank, Israel could become a purely secular state.
• Making land concessions may not necessarily encourage more Palestinian attacks on Israel, but rather create more defensible borders and open the way for a negotiated peace.
Sharon errs by making this move without talking to the Palestinians, or even the US. If he's simply going for greater security (trying to limit casualties) rather than fostering a lasting peace, he'll need to show he's a better partner in peace efforts. Merely disengaging from the Palestinians is hardly a formula for peace.