Potential Costs of Gaza Pullout

What a slog it's been for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. After more than a year of pushing his plan to dismantle Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four places in the West Bank, Sharon, "the Bulldozer," this week removed the last legislative boulder blocking the historic withdrawal - planned for July.

Along the way, Sharon has sacrificed unity in his own party, and been forced into a coalition government with the rival Labor party. But the final costs have yet to be tallied, and they're potentially staggering:

• Jew vs. Jew. Israel is bracing itself for the forceable, and possibly violent, removal of those settlers who believe the lands on which they live are biblically authorized as part of "greater" Israel.

• Personal threat to Sharon. Israeli security forces are extremely concerned about "Jewish terrorism" and Sharon. Fresh in their minds is the 1995 assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jew opposed to his peace efforts.

• Palestinian statehood. Hopes of a peace deal could be swept aside by the Palestinian belief that Sharon, the father of Israeli settlements, is sacrificing Gaza so he can hang on to much of the West Bank - and that he never intends to agree to a meaningful Palestinian state of contiguous territory.

That common perception was recently reinforced by reports that Israel plans to add 3,500 homes to a large West Bank settlement. The US-led "road map" to peace forbids new settlement construction.Perhaps the reports of these new homes were timed to encourage Knesset backing for Gaza; or, perhaps they're meant as a sign of Israeli displeasure over lack of Palestinian progress on disarming militants. Still, they put the peace process unnecessarily at risk.

The US - the one player in the peace process that could exert any real pressure on settlements - has been disappointingly soft on the issue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed disapproval of the planned new units, but that was couched in language about "major" Jewish settlements and "changes on the ground" having to be taken into account in any final-status agreement.

When Sharon visits President Bush April 11, he'll have Gaza on his mind. But the president must keep the bigger goal of statehood in view, and hold Sharon to account on settlements.

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