After Cabinet Vote, Sharon Faces Major Political Challenges to Plan

It has been watered down to placate senior Cabinet ministers and keep the National Religious Party in the governing coalition. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Palestinians, even in the form that passed the Cabinet on Sunday, is potentially of historic significance.

There’s no escaping the fact that a right-wing, Likud-led government voted to launch a process that will see Israeli troops and civilians leave the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005 and will draw new lines in the West Bank, creating promising conditions for the vision of two states for two peoples.

Moreover, the chances for implementation seem good: The United States and the other members of the diplomatic “Quartet” working for Middle East peace back the withdrawal plan.

More importantly, Egypt, the Arab country with most leverage on the Palestinians, has thrown its weight behind it and is ready to take practical steps to help. But there’s a major snag: Despite his impressive victory in the Cabinet, it’s not yet clear whether Sharon has the political clout to see the plan through. He fired two dissenting Cabinet ministers from the National Union party, Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, to ensure a majority in the Cabinet, but that only exacerbated strong far-right ferment against the plan.

Two of the six legislators from the hawkish NRP quit the coalition Tuesday, and at least 12 of the Likud Party’s 40 Knesset members are threatening to vote against the government on key issues.

Indeed, because of the internal opposition within his own Likud Party, Sharon may not be able to muster a Knesset majority for an alternative coalition with the Labor Party. That could trigger elections and a new political landscape in Israel.

Sharon may have most of the international community behind him. But watering down the plan — as he was forced to do after Likud members rejected it in a party referendu! m last month — has only postponed a major political showdown in Israe l, and it’s not clear for how long.

The revised disengagement plan approved Sunday differs from Sharon’s original program in that the settlements are to be evacuated in stages, with a Cabinet vote before each stage.

The text explicitly states that Sunday’s decision does not sanction the evacuation of a single settlement, but it does divide the settlements earmarked for evacuation into four groups, establishes committees to plan relocation and compensation for evacuated settlers, and sets a March 1 deadline for a vote on evacuating the first group.

That was enough for the Quartet to welcome the revised plan, and for the United States to describe it as “historic” and “courageous.”

But the key outside player, it seems, will be Egypt. The Egyptians fear that if Israel withdraws unilaterally from Gaza without an orderly transfer of power, the strip could become a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, with dangerous consequences for Egypt as well as for Israel.

Egyp! t’s Muslim Brotherhood, dedicated to the overthrow of the Egyptian regime, assassinated one of the country’s last three presidents — Anwar Sadat — and tried to kill the other two, Gamel Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak.

The last thing Mubarak wants is for Gaza to become a base for political subversion against Egypt. The Egyptians therefore are doing all they can to broker a smooth handover of power to the Palestinian Authority and to give it the tools to keep Hamas and Islamic Jihad at bay.

The Egyptians are proposing a number of far-reaching security and political moves that could give Sharon’s plan the impetus it needs to succeed.

In the security sphere, they are ready to train P.A. forces in day-to-day police work and in fighting terrorism and ready to oversee the restructuring of the P.A. armed forces into three services under a unified command.

In return, Israel would stop targeted killings and other counterterrorist actions as part of a new cease-fire. ! In addition, the Egyptians would send more forces to the border to pre vent arms smuggling into Gaza.

On the political level, the Egyptians are pressing P.A. President Yasser Arafat on the assumption that if he relinquishes power, peace talks with Israel can resume.

Therefore, Egypt insists that the commander of the unified Palestinian force be someone other than Arafat, that Arafat hand over most of his authority to Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and that a strongman they feel they can work with, perhaps former security chief Mohamed Dahlan, take responsibility for Gaza security.

The Egyptians have given Arafat a June 15 deadline to agree to their terms, and Egyptian officials told Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom during a visit to Cairo on Monday that they would not tolerate Arafat “playing games” any longer.

But the potential for progress could be undermined by Sharon’s domestic difficulties. A looming split in the NRP — party leaders Effi Eitam and Yitzhak Levy resigned from the government Tuesday — coupled with Knesset ! opposition from the 12 rebel Likud legislators leaves Sharon without a reliable parliamentary majority.

His obvious recourse is to bring the Labor Party’s 21 legislators into the coalition, but that’s easier said than done. Six Labor legislators are against joining Sharon’s government; their supporters say they have a solid majority of 66 legislators in the 120-member Knesset who don’t want Labor to join.

For the time being, Sharon can rely on Labor’s promised parliamentary “safety net” — its pledge not to bring him down as long as disengagement goes forward.

But that might not be enough when the vote on evacuating the first group of settlements comes along, and right-wing pressures inside the Cabinet resurface. To push the vote through then, Sharon will want Labor in the Cabinet.

In the weeks and months ahead, Sharon and his old friend, Labor Chairman Shimon Peres, will use all their political skills to outmaneuver the many opponents of a unity government. ! The future of the disengagement plan could depend on their success.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Report.

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