Almost since the first day it went in to Gaza in 1967, Israel has wanted to get out in the worst way, and that's how it did it. Three years ago Israel thought it was leaving for good. Everything was packed up and moved out quickly, even if it meant many of the Jewish settlers went kicking and screaming. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The settlers were outnumbered by the soldiers stationed there to protect them in their mini-fortresses, and they needed armed escorts to travel about. The whole enterprise was a financial, security and diplomatic drain on Israeli society, the government concluded. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan was to leave unilaterally, no bargaining with the Palestinians, just get out and toss the keys over the transom. "Good riddance, now it's your problem. You're on your own." For Israel, the goal was to remove a perennial flash point and any excuse for further attacks by the Palestinians while showing the world Israel's desire for peace and determination to end to the occupation. And it was to be an opportunity for the Palestinians to show they could govern themselves and were ready for statehood. BUT INSTEAD of creating a showcase for Palestinian democracy, Hamas turned Gaza into a missile base for attacking Israel in its campaign to eradicate the Jewish state. Hardly what diplomats would call a confidence building measure. The win-win theory soon collided with reality. It was badly implemented by all parties. Most of the blame falls on Palestinian shoulders but the Israeli, American and Arab governments share some of the responsibility. Palestinians felt they had no obligations in the withdrawal because they'd been deliberately excluded from the planning. Sharon refused to deal with then-PLO head Yasser Arafat; even after Arafat died, Israel did not negotiate with the new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, despite Sharon's expressions of support for the "moderate" alternative to the hated Arafat. The Bush administration, anxious to answer Arab and European criticism that it wasn't doing enough to help the Palestinians, pressed Israel to accelerate the withdrawal and expand it to some West Bank settlements as well. Washington later made matters worse when it pressured Sharon, his successor, Ehud Olmert, and Abbas to let Hamas participate in parliamentary elections despite the objections of all three and the Islamic group's refusal to meet conditions Israel and the Palestinians had earlier agreed to. Both are examples of what can happen when Israeli leaders are too anxious to please an American government that has a different agenda. Sharon and Olmert had seen previous prime ministers lose their jobs because they mishandled the American portfolio, and they seemed determined to avoid that at all costs. GETTING OUT of Gaza has been a disaster for the Palestinians, but not for the Israelis, says Haifa University's Prof. Dan Schueftan. That's because Hamas, through its violent takeover of Gaza, its continued terrorism and its rejection of any peace with Israel has shown what a Palestinian state would look like, he explained, and it's better to find that out now rather than later. Critics of the disengagement - they call it "retreat" or "surrender" - portray the move as trading stability for chaos, but the occupation was costing Israel money, lives and morale. Many displaced setters remain angry and bitter because they feel their government reneged on promises of assistance, but that doesn't make the withdrawal wrong, only badly implemented. Some on the Israeli right are talking about reestablishing settlements if the IDF is sent back in to clear out the rocketeers and Hamas, but they delude themselves. "Not being in Gaza strengthens Israeli society, indicating to Israelis that we are essentially on the way out of the populated parts of the territories, away from constant entanglement with the Palestinians," says Schueftan, one of the original proponents of the separation barrier now under construction. "If we are to be a healthy society we have to disengage." THE GAZA experience has derailed Israeli plans to withdraw from the West Bank in the near future - the platform on which Olmert was elected in March 2006 - and undermined support for Palestinian statehood among Israelis and in the American Jewish community. Olmert this week presented Abbas with a detailed peace plan, but it is going nowhere. There are two Palestines, Fatahland in the West Bank and Hamastan in Gaza, and that means there is no way to conclude a peace deal no matter how anxious Abbas and Olmert may be to sign one before they leave office. Compounding the problem, Fatah's hold on the West Bank depends on the presence of the Israeli army; without that Hamas would wipe out the PLO as it did in Gaza and take over. A senior Hamas official, Mahmoud Zahar, this week called on West Bank Palestinians to overthrow the secular Fatah in favor of the Islamists. What was supposed to be the model for a future Palestinian state turned into a rocket-propelled demonstration of why statehood remains a distant vision.