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In Push for Amended Pullout Plan, Sharon Faces Tough Political Battles

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Facing a crucial Cabinet vote next week on his amended disengagement plan from the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon is facing as much pressure as he ever did as a general on the battlefield.

On the international front, the Israeli prime minister has weathered scathing criticism of Israel’s latest military operation in the Gaza Strip, which left more than 40 Palestinians dead and dozens of homes demolished in the Rafah refugee camp.

At home, a rebellion is gathering steam in Sharon’s Likud Party by opponents of the planned withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

But Sharon is determined to press on. Just as his crossing of the Suez Canal turned the tables in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sharon hopes that Cabinet passage of his amended disengagement plan will disarm critics in his party and improve Israel’s tarnished international standing.

“I have been at the front for 60 years,” Sharon told a gathering of veteran soldiers Sunday. “You know me and you know that when I fight for something that is right and just, I do it.”

Earlier in the day, a resolute Sharon told the army’s top brass that he “didn’t want their opinions of his plan” — just their input on how best to carry it out.

Sharon says he will closely coordinate the withdrawal plan with the United States, Egypt, Jordan and Europe. This, he hopes, will help create a fount of international goodwill toward Israel.

Meanwhile, the prime minister’s aides predict that the new political dynamic will marginalize Sharon’s hawkish critics in the Likud.

But it’s not that simple.

International goodwill will depend on successful implementation of a complicated withdrawal plan that includes evacuating Jewish settlements. The Israeli army’s top brass hasn’t been fully behind the plan, the confrontation with the Likud rebels could split the party and threaten Sharon’s political career, and Sharon first will have to get the plan approved in the Cabinet, where opinion is split.

The decision last week to send Israeli troops into Rafah, in southern Gaza, came after reports that Iranian arms, including Katyusha rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons, were about to be smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels leading from Egypt.

The army leadership long has argued that if Israel withdraws from Gaza, it would need to widen a strip along the Gaza-Egypt boundary, known as the Philadelphi route, and maintain a presence there to prevent future arms smuggling.

But international condemnation of Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes to find smuggling tunnels and widen the Philadelphi route, thereby making future tunneling virtually impossible, led to a revision of the military’s thinking.

The generals realized they wouldn’t be able to widen the Philadelphi route as much as they had planned, strengthening arguments against maintaining any Israeli military presence in Gaza.

The Shinui Party’s Avraham Poraz made that point to Sharon in a meeting last week. Israel, he said, should forget about trying to seal the border and prevent arms smuggling but should create a deterrent balance like the one with Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border: If Palestinians shell Israeli civilians after a withdrawal from Gaza, Israel can hit back tenfold without breaching international norms, Poraz said.

Ironically, despite the international criticism and the Israeli and Palestinian casualties in Gaza, Sharon found himself in a political win-win situation.

If the army succeeded in establishing an efficient hold over the Philadelphi route, the army leadership then could back Sharon’s disengagement plan. If it failed to do so because of international and domestic pressure, it would have to rethink its overall Gaza strategy in line with Sharon’s longer-term evacuation plans.

The Likud challenge to Sharon is more serious. The main difference between Sharon’s amended plan and the one Likud voters rejected in a May 2 referendum is that, under the new plan, withdrawal will be implemented in stages.

The withdrawal will begin with three isolated settlements in Gaza; phase two will see the withdrawal of four settlements in the northern West Bank; phase three will involve 15 settlements in Gaza’s Gush Katif bloc; and phase four would focus on three settlements in northern Gaza.

The idea is to evacuate the more vulnerable settlements first, proceeding from one stage to the next only after the government is satisfied that the previous stage has created a more favorable security situation.

Sharon’s Likud opponents say that’s only a cosmetic change from the original withdrawal plan, which party members resoundingly rejected. In proceeding, Sharon is in breach of party discipline, they argue.

Several Likud legislators, led by Uzi Landau, a Cabinet minister who oversees Israel’s secret services, say they will do whatever they can to block Sharon. In the Cabinet, they will try to influence other Cabinet ministers; in the party’s parliamentary caucus or the Knesset, they have pledged to vote against the prime minister.

This group claims to have the support of more than half of the 40 Likud legislators in the Knesset, and the group clearly poses a serious threat to Sharon.

The first major battle will come next Sunday, when Sharon submits his amended plan to the Cabinet. Of the 23 ministers, 11 support the new plan, 11 are opposed and one, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, is the potential tiebreaker.

Sharon aides say that beside trying to win Shalom over, the prime minister is considering “creating a majority” by firing one or two of the rebel ministers — Landau and Diaspora Affairs Minister Natan Sharanksy — and promoting Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim, who supports the plan, to the Cabinet.

Another strategy might be to put only the first phase of the plan to a vote, and have the Cabinet merely “note” the plan as a whole.

One way or another, a determined Sharon likely will push at least part of his plan through the Cabinet. Then he will have a party rebellion on his hands, the size of which will depend on whether leading figures like Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu join it.

Sharon’s hopes of political survival could depend on whether he is able to forge a political alliance with Labor. Labor could join with Likud in a coalition that pushes the disengagement plan through the Knesset. Sharon also could form an electoral alliance with Labor and Shinui by running on a disengagement ticket in new elections that would be seen as a sort of national referendum on withdrawal.

Sharon aides say poll numbers show that such a united coalition would win close to an outright majority of 61 seats in the Knesset.

But there’s yet another wrinkle for the beleaguered prime minister: Aside from all the political maneuvering, Sharon must survive a legal battle against corruption charges.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz is due to rule within the next few weeks on whether or not to indict Sharon. An indictment almost certainly would end his career, while a decision not to indict would enable Sharon to survive yet another day — and face the political battle of his life.

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