JERUSALEM, Oct. 3 (JTA) — Five years after the intifada began, a debate is raging in Israel over how to build on the current lull: re-engage the Palestinians in peace talks or make further unilateral moves like the recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. For now, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rules out further unilateral steps. But several of his closest advisers argue that by around mid-2006, there will be no choice. Unilateralism as a strategy has been developing slowly since the intifada erupted at Rosh Hashanah five years ago. It stemmed from a perception that the violence proved there was no peace partner on the Palestinian side, and it received a major fillip from the way the international community hailed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. The international acclaim underlined the extent to which Israel’s diplomatic standing has been transformed since Sept. 28, 2000, when the intifada is considered to have begun. Israel’s peace strategy had imploded after the collapse of the Camp David peace conference, and when the intifada erupted Israel was accused of using disproportional force to fight it. There was widespread sympathy for the Palestinian underdog. Over the next five years, however, support for the Palestinians slowly eroded. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 delegitimized terrorism as a means of pursuing political goals; the Karine A affair, in which Yasser Arafat lied to the Bush administration about a Palestinian attempt to smuggle weapons from Iran, discredited the Palestinian leader; and Israel’s success in combating Palestinian terrorism and Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza restored Israel’s diplomatic standing in the world. The transformation in Sharon’s own political fortunes was equally impressive. Five years ago his political career seemed to be over: He was seen as no more than a caretaker leader of the opposition, a has-been holding the fort for Benjamin Netanyahu, a younger and more dynamic former prime minister who was expected to regain the top post. Moreover, many blamed Sharon’s visit to Jerusalem’s holy Temple Mount on Sept. 27, 2000, for the outbreak of the intifada. Yet four months later, against all odds, he was prime minister. As national leader, Sharon carried out two major unilateral acts: the building of the security fence to stop terrorist infiltration into Israel, and the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank. The gains for Israel were enormous: The obvious pain of withdrawal won Israel great international respect and support, and the Palestinians understood how serious Israel was about creating conditions for a territorial solution to the conflict. The pullout set in motion a two-state dynamic, Israel and Palestine, and eased Israel’s demographic concerns. The lull in the fighting led to a marked improvement in the Israeli economy. And while Palestinian violence still simmered, the fact that Israel had pulled out of Gaza is expected to give it greater leeway in retaliating. These gains have members of Sharon’s inner circle, like Eyal Arad and Eval Giladi, talking about unilateralism as a strategy. In a talk at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center on the fifth anniversary of Sharon’s Temple Mount visit, Arad argued that without progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track, unilateralism could become a strategy. “If we see over time that the impasse continues, then even if Israel’s diplomatic situation is good we might consider turning disengagement into an Israeli strategy,” he declared. Without a serious Palestinian partner, “Israel would determine its borders independently.” The following day, in a lecture at Tel Aviv University, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, seemed to back up Arad. “In the next few years, Israel will be forced to carry out more and more unilateral steps to promote its interests,” he predicted. Sharon put out a statement denying that he was considering further unilateral moves, now or ever. The only game in town, he said, is the internationally approved “road map” peace plan, under which Israel and the Palestinians are to negotiate a territorial settlement following a detailed series of interim steps. If the road map breaks down “there will not be any further unilateral territorial moves,” Sharon declared. Sharon also sent another of his close advisers, Dov Weissglas, to tell Israeli television audiences that one of the great achievements of the unilateral pullback was that Israel now can sit back and do nothing until the Palestinians fulfill their road map commitments: fight terrorism, disarm terrorist militias and carry out political, security and economic reforms. For now, the international community, especially the United States, seems to back Sharon. President Bush has intimated several times that the ball is in the Palestinian court. Just last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supported the Israeli position that Hamas should not be allowed to participate in Palestinian Authority elections unless it dismantles its militias. But what happens six months or a year down the road if the Palestinians still haven’t got their act together? Will the international community, including the United States, start pressing Israel to make more unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank? And will the same logic that led Israel to pullout of Gaza dictate similar moves from the West Bank, with similar benefits? Ari Shavit, a political analyst for Ha’aretz, is convinced that the pullout from Gaza has set in motion an inexorable historic force leading to the partition of the Land of Israel — by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if not. He maintains that the most important political fact in the Middle East this past year has been the emergence of an Israeli majority, allied to Sharon, that is determined to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. This new Israeli majority, Shavit writes, “realizes that only the creation of a separation between the two peoples will end the symbiotic-pathological relationship between them and lead them toward true mutual recognition.” Sharon and the Israeli majority, he says, “have become the most important agents of change in the Middle Eastern arena.” Most Israeli pundits agree that there will be change. The coming year could see whether it will be achieved by negotiation or by further unilateral steps.