On the surface, the dramas playing out among Israeli Jews — over whether to withdraw from the Gaza Strip — and among Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian Arabs — over how to share power — may seem totally disconnected. But in fact they are all variations on a theme: Can democracy really take root or thrive in the Middle East?

Lord knows, I am rooting for the good guys here. For me, the war in Iraq was always about democracy and the necessity of helping it emerge in the Arab-Muslim world. I am thrilled that things have come this far. This is the most interesting drama in the world today, but it's not over, because the forces opposing it are deep and virulent — virulent enough to stall it in the Arab world and to make it dysfunctional in Israel.

In Israel, the question is whether its democratic system can sustain the monumental decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and all the Israeli settlements there. For the Iraqis, Palestinians and Lebanese, the question is whether these multiethnic communities can produce, through horizontal dialogues, a political arena where monumental decisions can be taken — decisions that are essential if these societies are to progress in the modern age. In short, can Arab society give birth to infant democracy in order to get healthy, and can Israel's adolescent democracy survive a monumental decision required to stay healthy?

Let's start with the Jews. One of the criticisms leveled at Ariel Sharon over his decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza is that he has never fully spelled out the reasons for his epiphany. After all, Sharon not only helped build many of these settlements, but he consistently proclaimed the need to hold onto them, for security reasons, forever.

An Israeli columnist, Nahum Barnea, once described Sharon's sudden turnaround by quoting a lyric from a famous Israeli pop song: "What you see from here, you don't see from there."

What Barnea meant was that when Sharon finally became prime minister, with full responsibility for the Jewish state, he had to face squarely the reality that his predecessors had faced: The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was eroding the moral fiber of the Israeli army, and, if sustained, would result in an apartheid — a minority of Jews ruling over a majority of Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Jewish settler movement in Israel has always been a minority. The Israeli majority went along with it — as long as there was no price. But now the price has become inescapable.

"There is something quite stunning when you think about it," the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi remarked. "Three Israeli prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Sharon — all of them army generals, two from Labor one from Likud — all came to the same conclusion: that the occupation was unsustainable from the point of view of Israel's national defense." As a result, they all shifted from focusing on "wars of necessity to focusing on a peace of necessity," Ezrahi added. Sharon doesn't want to explain this about-face publicly, in part, I assume, because it suggests weakness — that Israel can't keep doing what it has been doing, and it knows it.

But this withdrawal is a threat to the Jewish religious nationalists. Their goal is not peace, but to conquer Israeli society with their messianic vision and biblical map. They killed Rabin for getting in their way and have threatened to do the same to Sharon. Some of these settlers will not go down quietly.

Ditto in the Arab world. Democratic politics in the West areabout horizontal bargaining between parties and civil organizations. Politics in places like Iraq and Palestine have been based for decades on "Oriental despotism" — top-down monologues by dictators buttressed by politics of fear. What Iraqis and Palestinians are trying to do is make a transition from one system to the other. But the fundamentalists and Nasserites within their societies — who for years have been nourished by their Oriental despots as a way of keeping the people backward, divided and focused on the wrong things — are still powerful and virulent. They, too, will not go quietly. The more they are seen to be losing, the crazier they will get.

So this story is not over by a long shot. The birth of democracy in the Arab world and the sustaining of democracy in Israel are now on the table. I am an optimist about both in the long run — but brace yourself for the short run.

New York Times News Service