Sharon faces Likud stalwarts

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. (Brian Hendler)

TEL AVIV, Jan. 6 (JTA) — "I decide, and I will execute." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s go-it-alone declamation this week might have sent shivers down the spines of Palestinians, Israel´s left wing and international peace brokers — if it had been directed at any of them. Instead, it was a message to the faithful of Sharon´s own Likud Party, as the prime minister made clear that party tradition would not dissuade him from his new, unilateralist road to Israeli-Palestinian peace. There were plenty of hecklers in the audience of 3,000 at the Likud Party Central Committee´s convention in Tel Aviv on Monday. They jeered and whistled when their septuagenarian leader finally walked to the podium after sitting and listening to two hours´ worth of speeches by party members, many of whom denounced his plans. Sharon appeared unfazed by the catcalls. "My disengagement plan is the best plan for our security," Sharon said, referring to a plan he outlined last month that envisions unilateral separation from the Palestinians should the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan fail. Sharon´s plan would involve withdrawing some Israeli troops and removing some Jewish towns from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many Likud stalwarts have reacted to the proposal with frustration and anger. On Monday, at Sharon´s first appearance before Likud faithful since he announced the plan, the prime minister stood his ground. "This is my plan and I will see it carried out," Sharon proclaimed. On Tuesday, Israel´s Ma´ariv newspaper reported that 28 illegal settlement outposts housing about 400 West Bank settlers have been slated for removal as part of Israel´s obligations under the road map. When Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first publicly floated the idea of a partial withdrawal from the disputed territories, some Likud veterans cried foul. They had assumed their party was committed to the dream of Greater Israel, encompassing the West Bank and Gaza Strip — parts of the biblical Land of Israel captured in 1967 from Egypt and Jordan. They used the convention as an opportunity to tell Sharon what they thought, with many lamenting that the party had adopted what they said was a left-wing political platform. "How are you any different from the Labor Party?" settlement activist Moshe Feiglin asked in his address to the convention. An audience member wearing a crocheted yarmulke and sporting a beard held aloft a sign reading, "The Sharon Plan Rewards Terror," the text forming a portrait of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Several Sharon stalwarts considered the sign overkill and scuffled with the protestor until the sign lay in tatters. But the tension-filled scene was par for the course in a central committee that tends to be more radical than the Likud rank and file. Some observers said the demonstrations of support and protest at the convention were just that — shows. "The protests help him in Washington," columnist Nahum Barnea wrote of Sharon in the Yediot Achronot newspaper. "The protests also improve Sharon´s standing in terms of Israeli public opinion. They portray him as a determined, unabashed leader who readily makes unpopular decisions." International opinion is no small matter for the Sharon government, particularly when it comes to Washington. In a policy speech last month, Olmert grimly pointed out the public-relations benefit if Israeli troops and police square off against Jewish settlers when West Bank evacuations get under way. "If the world sees the heart-rending difficulty of uprooting communities, we can expected a softening of demands on us," Olmert said. Meanwhile, the government has taken pains to rebut charges of concessions on another disputed front, the Golan Heights. Despite recent overtures by Syrian President Bashar Assad, an Israeli Cabinet minister announced a program last week to boost the Golan´s Jewish population. Sharon confidants, however, said no such plan had been approved. Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, but prime ministers since have indicated a willingness to trade it to Syria, which held the Golan from 1946 until 1967, in return for peace. "The Golan has been an inseparable part of the State of Israel since the days of Menachem Begin," Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz told the central committee at Monday´s convention. His invocation of Likud´s father superior elicited cheers from even the most disgruntled audience members. "And no dictator who offers an embrace of peace with one hand, while with the other sending Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists to carry out attacks in Israel, will stop it," Katz said.

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