THE APRIL 14 meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was a climactic moment of both grim and hopeful truth. For Sharon and the Likud, it represented the belated and ideologically embittering acknowledgment of demography—the recognition that Israel can safely preserve its Jewish and democratic character only if its territory contains a hefty majority of Jews. The contemporary history of multinational states has been, after all, relentlessly painful.

Ideally, the withdrawal from Gaza would have been arranged through a negotiated agreement with the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). But the P.A.’s sordid record on terrorism made it an unpalatable partner, and its two successive powerless prime ministers, obsessed with protecting their own backs from the militias around them, showed little interest in parleying with the Israelis. So Sharon acted on his own. He seems also to have accepted the principle that Israel will leave parts of the West Bank. This may eventually cost him his rightwing coalition; it will likely be succeeded by a coalition with mainstream Labor, also good news.

Sharon’s arrangements with Bush over the future of the West Bank are much more ambiguous than his immediate plans for Gaza. But it is already evident that those Israelis who have planted themselves in isolated and precarious enclaves surrounded by Palestinian towns and villages and requiring continuous military protection should start looking for new housing. Ditto for those communities that impede the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state. But even the widely misread Security Council Resolution 242 stipulated that Israel would not be obliged to vacate all the land it captured in the defensive war of 1967. So the differences between the United States and Israel over withdrawal in the West Bank will now focus on those Jewish towns that have grown up close to the old and treacherous cease-fire lines of 1949, which left Jerusalem exposed, like cold war Berlin, and other parts of Israel eight to ten miles in depth between the West Bank and the sea. Until now, no American president has translated these facts into policy. The Palestinians will have to recognize this reality, too.

Sharon now envisions a Jewish state living alongside a viable Palestinian one. Whether the ultimate peace between the two proves robust will depend on Palestinians’ renunciation of their romance with terrorism. Bush understands this, too. He has freed himself from the rancorous attitude toward Israel displayed by his father and his secretary of state, James Baker, and he has disallowed any Palestinian fantasy, couched in the cunning slogan about a “right of return,” of overturning the demographic realities of Israel. Yet Sharon or his successors should likewise not succumb to visions of a chintzy and hobbled

Palestine, even when they are making, as they are now, unilateral and unreciprocated concessions. They must not claim a dunam more than is required for the safety of Israel. Someday, perhaps sooner than later, a Palestinian leadership whom reasonable people can trust will emerge and come to the negotiating table without illusions.

But we certainly are not there yet. Dangers do loom. Will Palestinians interpret Israel’s withdrawal as retreat, and compromise as defeat, in the manner of the disastrous Hezbollah misunderstanding of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon? And who will police against cross-border rockets and artillery from Gaza? What happens if, amid the thousands of laborers crossing into Israel daily for work, there are suicide bombers? These are not talking points, these are matters of life and death. And the Israelis cannot leave these matters to luck, and they will not.

The Palestinian street remains frenzied, and Israel cannot relent in its war against terrorism. A few weeks ago Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi vowed, “If by Apache or by cardiac arrest, I prefer Apache.” Sharon gave him his wish. And the tiresome chorus of eminences—Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, the foreign secretaries of Japan, Great Britain, France—went into its usual liturgy of appeasement: unlawful, unjustified, counterproductive. The establishment opposition to Sharon’s war against terrorist leaders, and to the fence that will certainly stop most of their terrorist followers, is by now sheer ritual. Its relevance has collapsed under pressure from reality, under pressure from this American president.