JERUSALEM (Apr. 19)
When Ariel Sharon decided to have the full Likud Party vote on his controversial plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, it seemed like a desperate gamble.
The chances that Sharon’s party would approve the plan were uncertain, to put it mildly. Yet just two weeks later, it looks as if the prime minister’s gamble has paid off and that the Likud will pass Sharon’s plan by a clear majority.
After his mid-April White House meeting with President Bush and the ensuing support of key Likud Cabinet ministers, Sharon is confident he can win the crucial May 2 party vote by a convincing margin.
And though aides insist that Saturday night’s assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi in Gaza was planned long before the mini-referendum, pundits believe it will help Sharon garner even more Likud support.
The latest polls, taken after the meeting with Bush but before Rantissi’s assassination, gave supporters of the plan a 10-15 percent lead over opponents in the Likud. Only strong public opposition by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have turned the tables — but Netanyahu, after some wavering, announced that he, too, is now on Sharon’s side.
But the Likud is not the only factor that could affect the plan’s success: It still could be delayed or scuttled if Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decides to indict Sharon on corruption charges. The plan also could be modified if the Palestinians finally discard violence in an attempt to stop Israel’s unilateral moves and force Sharon into talks on a negotiated settlement.
In his meeting with President Bush, Sharon won two significant American endorsements of Israeli policy:
That the permanent borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state will not be identical to the “Green Line” — the 1949 armistice line after Israel’s War of Independence, which served as a de facto border between Israel and the West Bank until the 1967 Six-Day War — but will take into account Israel’s large West Bank settlements;
That Palestinian refugees wishing to return to their “homeland” will return to the Palestinian state, rather than to Israel.
These two American commitments will be of major importance in any permanent peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. They also have been instrumental in turning the Likud tide in Sharon’s favor, with the prime minister presenting them as part of his disengagement package.
Rantissi’s assassination is having a similar effect. If the Bush commitments show the disengagement plan’s diplomatic potential, the assassination shows Sharon’s determination to continue fighting terrorism.
Likud opponents argue that withdrawing from Gaza could impede the fight against terrorism, even encouraging more attacks if Israel seems to be fleeing in the face of violence. Rantissi’s killing undercuts those arguments.
Netanyahu, the only Likud leader who could have mobilized enough party support to defeat Sharon, made his backing for disengagement contingent on three conditions: That Israel control all border passages to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza after the army withdraws; that the possibility of refugees returning to Israel be ruled out; and that the West Bank security fence be completed before any withdrawal, and that it include the main Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
After Sharon was able to satisfy him on these points, Netanyahu came out in favor of the plan. Playing to party right-wingers, he said he, too, was not enamored of the plan, but was thinking about damage control.
Other heavyweight waverers, most notably Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat, also have announced their support for the plan. In a sign of the shifting political winds, a series of debates between Sharon and Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau, one of the fiercest opponents of the plan within Likud, were canceled.
Sharon has other cards too. If the plan is defeated, both he and President Bush will be deeply embarrassed, his backers argue. Sharon might resign, they whisper, and Bush will resent being made to look foolish.
On the positive side, they maintain, disengagement will help the fight against terrorism, improve Israel’s international standing and create conditions for future peacemaking with the Palestinians.
The opponents are fighting an uphill battle. Fearful that any frontal assault on Sharon will backfire, they are being careful to attack the policy and not the prime minister.
“We love you, Arik, but we’re voting against withdrawal,” is one slogan now under consideration.
The opponents’ cause is not helped by the fact that they are divided among themselves. There are three opposition camps in the Likud, one led by ministers Landau and Natan Sharansky; another made up mainly of members of Moshe Feiglin’s far-right “Jewish Leadership” group; and a third under Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz.
Most of the Cabinet ministers who oppose the plan have chosen not to campaign actively against Sharon.
Weekend polls reflect the slide toward Sharon. A poll published in the mass circulation daily, Yediot Achronot, showed that of Likud members who were sure they would vote, 54 percent supported disengagement, 38 percent opposed it and 8 percent were undecided.
In the rival Ma’ariv newspaper, the figures were nearly 52 percent for, 40 percent against, and 8 percent undecided. Experts say it will be virtually impossible for the naysayers to make up the difference in the short time left until the May 2 vote.
Shortly after that, Mazuz will make his decision on whether or not to indict Sharon. If he presses charges and Sharon steps down, the American input will make it difficult for a successor to drop the plan entirely. But someone like Netanyahu, who is not enthusiastic about disengagement, could slow things down.
Much will depend on the Palestinian response, too. If, because of the plan and the strikes against Hamas leaders, there is more Palestinian terrorism, Israel will continue its unilateral moves.
But some Palestinian voices are urging a cessation of violence, arguing that terrorism has led them into a political dead end, facing unilateral Israeli actions at their expense and American support for key Israeli positions.
If the violence stops, they say, the Palestinians could get wide international support for a dialogue with Israel. Then, instead of carrying out unilateral moves, Israel could be forced to negotiate, leading to steps carried out by mutual agreement — and far more compatible with Palestinian interests.