IT APPEARS increasingly likely there will be one major positive development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the coming months: Israel will remove all of its settlements and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, as well as several small settlements in the West Bank. That would be a big step toward disengaging Israelis from Palestinians and creating the room for a new Arab state alongside Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has courageously dedicated his formidable willpower and political leverage to pulling it off. Israel is now committed to beginning the evacuation on Aug. 17, despite attempts by settlers to forcibly prevent it, multiple mutinies in his Likud Party and threats from extremists so severe that Israeli cabinet members have taken to wearing bulletproof vests. The difficulty of what Mr. Sharon is doing should not be underestimated, nor should its value as a building block for a long-term peace.
It is nevertheless alarming that, just 37 days before the pullout is to begin, efforts by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and international brokers to coordinate the transfer of territories and provide for stability in Gaza after Israel leaves appear to be making little progress. It's not yet clear how Gaza's borders will be patrolled, how goods and workers will be able to pass from there to Israel, the West Bank and the rest of the world, what will happen to the Israeli-run greenhouses that now employ thousands of Palestinians, or how the territory will be treated by the international community. Even an agreement on the demolition of Israeli homes, announced with fanfare two weeks ago by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her most recent visit, has not been finalized. Israeli-Palestinian committees have been negotiating half a dozen specific issues, but leaders on both sides appear reluctant to make commitments.
The risk is not so much that the evacuation will be stopped but that it will be followed by disorder in Gaza and renewed enmity or even warfare between Israel and the Palestinians. Rather than propelling a renewal of the peace process outlined in President Bush's "road map," as all sides say they want, the withdrawal could renew the Middle East stalemate that extended though Mr. Bush's first four years in office.
The Bush administration has been trying to promote a coordinated pullout through two envoys: Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, who is working on security issues with the Palestinians, and former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn, an international representative who is trying to broker economic agreements and new development aid. Mr. Bush separately hosted both Mr. Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House before Ms. Rice's visit. Still, it appears the level of U.S. engagement may not be sufficient. In the end Israelis and Palestinians may find a way to agree on the withdrawal in the final weeks before it begins. But the more pressure they feel from the United States, and the higher the level from which it comes, the greater the chances for accord will be.