With Cease-fire Talks Continuing, Sharon Faces Internal Opposition

With Israel and the Palestinians seemingly approaching a cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces growing skepticism within his government over the “road map” peace plan.

Active American involvement, heavy pressure on Palestinian terror groups and widespread popular support for Sharon and his pro-road map policy are generating promising momentum for the peace plan.

But — setting aside doubts about the Palestinians’ willingness to honor their commitments — Israeli pundits wonder how far Sharon will be able to advance along the road map. Members of his own Likud party have become his most vociferous opponents.

The movement toward a cease-fire follows the military pressure Israel exerted on Hamas in recent weeks and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the region last weekend.

Using hints both of carrot and stick, Powell was able to generate progress on the two key issues: the “hudna,” or temporary cease-fire, to be declared by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations, and the willingness of the Palestinian Authority to take over security responsibility from Israel in Palestinian areas, starting in the northern Gaza Strip and Bethlehem.

Of course, reports of an imminent cease-fire all too often have proven illusory. But at the World Economic Conference in Amman, Powell sought to corner Hamas, urging his European counterparts to cut off funding to the group.

The Palestinian Authority reportedly backed Powell’s efforts, secretly suggesting to the Europeans that they declare Hamas a terrorist organization and thereby make its funding illegal. Palestinian sources denied the reports, but they were confirmed by European officials.

In addition, many analysts believe that continuing Israeli pressure on the group — a senior Hamas official was killed in Hebron this week and dozens of Hamas activists were arrested in the West Bank — have made Hamas more eager than ever for the protection of a cease-fire.

Powell also reaffirmed to Palestinian officials that if they got a viable cease-fire and neutralized Hamas, the United States would push for the establishment of a Palestinian state as envisaged in the road map.

P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is convinced that Powell means what he says. In a recent meeting with Hamas officials on the cease-fire, Abbas described the road map as a wonderful chance to extricate the Palestinians from their current dead-end predicament.

The Palestinian national movement, he said, is like a tiger with its head caught in a bottleneck; only the road map can save it. If there is no cease-fire, he said, Hamas will bear responsibility for the consequences.

On the Israeli side, there is much skepticism regarding Abbas’s capacity, not to mention his resolve, to effect real change. One of the chief doubters is Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who says both Abbas and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, have shown a disturbing lack of leadership and determination.

Mofaz says he hoped the early June summit held by Sharon, Abbas and President Bush at Aqaba, Jordan would usher in a new era, but so far nothing has changed on the Palestinian side.

In the Israeli Cabinet, there are three schools of thought on the road map. “Skeptics” like Mofaz see no danger in giving the road map a chance, but hold out little hope that it will succeed.

“Hawks” like Uzi Landau, a minister without portfolio from the Likud, see the road map as a major threat to Israel’s security. If things go too far, Landau says, he thinks Sharon can be blocked in the Cabinet.

Landau points out that in the late May Cabinet vote authorizing the road map, only 12 of 23 Cabinet ministers were in favor; the rest either voted against or abstained.

“All we need is one more to come over to our side to stop our going down this slippery slope. That’s precisely the challenge in this government,” Landau says.

Likud opposition to Sharon’s pro-road map policy also is building in the Knesset and in the party’s Central Committee. The Knesset’s Judea, Samaria and Gaza lobby group — led by the Likud’s Yehiel Hazan — is lobbying legislators of all parties to oppose the road map. The group numbers 30 members — a quarter of the Knesset — including 20 from Likud.

Under the latest amendment to the electoral system, if 61 legislators vote no-confidence in the prime minister and suggest an alternative candidate — say, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — President Moshe Katsav would be obliged to ask Netanyahu to form a new government. There would be no need for an election.

Hazan angrily rejects suggestions that his group could form the basis for such a vote. More significantly, Netanyahu is not doing anything to challenge Sharon’s leadership — certainly not drumming up support for a take-over bid in the Knesset.

Moreover, Likud insiders argue that as long as Sharon and his policies remain popular nationwide — some 60 percent of Israelis back the road map — a challenge to his leadership is unlikely. Should he lose popular support, however, anything could happen.

For now, Likud legislators who oppose the road map are not looking to topple Sharon, but rather to tie his hands. Legislator Gilad Erdan, chairman of Likud’s youth wing and an active member of the party’s right-wing “Forum for the Preservation of Likud Values,” wants to pass legislation that would force Sharon to put any agreement reached on the basis of the road map first to the Knesset and then to a nationwide referendum.

Erdan also seeks to restrict Sharon’s room for maneuvering by barring Likud legislators who vote against party resolutions from running again for Knesset on the Likud list. Given the May 2001 Likud Central Committee resolution opposing a Palestinian state, if Erdan gets his way any Likud legislator voting for a Palestinian state, as called for in the road map, would be risking his career.

As if the ferment in his own party were not enough, Sharon also faces serious opposition from forces to the right of Likud. Any attempt to dismantle populated settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is likely to encounter fierce resistance from settlers, especially after the recent ruling by right-wing rabbis that “no government has the right to give up parts of the Land of Israel” in order to create a Palestinian state.

Given the sentiment on the right, the road map inevitably will be a very bumpy ride for Sharon. If, in the wake of a cease-fire, there is movement toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, it will take all of Sharon’s political skill to sell it to his party — and his country.

NEXT STORY