Can Sharon stay the course?

Israeli police arrest an anti-withdrawal protester during a demonstration aimed at blocking traffic in Jerusalem on June 29. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli police arrest an anti-withdrawal protester during a demonstration aimed at blocking traffic in Jerusalem on June 29. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, July 3 (JTA) � With Israel�s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip just six weeks away, escalating right-wing and settler protests threaten to plunge the country into anarchy and could provoke a strong anti-settler backlash. Protesters last week blocked major highways, poured oil and scattered spikes across a busy road, occupied buildings in Gaza and stoned Palestinians and Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The army and police responded by temporarily declaring the Gaza strip a closed military zone, ejecting the extremists from occupied buildings and making dozens of arrests.

In an unprecedented spate of interviews and public statements, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon condemned what he called the �hooliganism� of the far right, and vowed that he would not be deterred by it.

But will authorities be able to maintain law and order in the face of even more extreme protest plans?

Even if they do, Sharon faces other serious challenges: Right-wing soldiers have begun refusing to obey orders, a phenomenon that some fear will spread. There also is talk among rebels in Sharon�s own Likud Party of a move to replace him as prime minister with the more hawkish finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the other hand, there are signs that the settlers and other withdrawal opponents may have gone too far and seriously undermined their cause: The media is rife with angry anti-settler columns, and the latest polls show a dramatic increase in support for withdrawal.

The last week of June may prove to have been a turning point. The repeated blocking of traffic on major thoroughfares has incensed ordinary Israelis, and the cat-and-mouse games that anti-withdrawal teenagers played with police trying to keep the roads open have exasperated authorities.

But more devastating for the settler cause have been the images of violence: The near-lynch of an 18-year-old Palestinian by right-wing extremists, and an Israeli soldier who suffered a concussion after being hit by a large boulder.

Even worse for the settler cause was the realization of how far protesters are prepared to go: Oil and spikes on the highways could cause fatal accidents.

Right-wing leader Moshe Feiglin made things worse when he said that the possibility of a few Israelis dying now as a result of the protests pales in significance next to the large numbers of Israelis he says �will surely die� if the withdrawal goes ahead.

The oil and spikes prompted outspoken attacks on the protesters in the press. The most vehement came in Yediot Achronot from crime correspondent Boukie Naeh: �If the police don�t break your bones, I will,� he wrote.

�The Israeli army and the police should kill a few members of your criminal Jewish gangs and stop the anarchy,� Naeh wrote. �Because if they don�t deal with you today, tomorrow you�ll burn down my house just because I don�t agree with you.�

Avi Bettelheim, deputy editor of the rival Ma�ariv newspaper, was more sanguine. He argues that the mayhem of the past few weeks has done much to discredit the settler cause, and says he now believes the withdrawal will go through more smoothly.

�The TV pictures of blocked roads convinced me that everything will be okay, if only because the settlers are very close to the point at which they make the public sick of them,� Bettelheim wrote. �And when that happens, their struggle will become meaningless, because (without public support) it won�t affect the original evacuation plans for Gaza and the northern West Bank in the slightest.�

A poll in last Friday�s Yediot Achronot seemed to bear Bettelheim out: After a steady decline to 53 percent at the start of June, the poll showed support for the government�s withdrawal plan climbing back to 62 percent.

But other observers aren�t convinced police will be able to handle future protesters, and see in the mayhem a sign that things will get worse.

Writing in Ha�aretz, Amos Harel asked, �If the police deploy a 6,000-strong force throughout the country but are unable to prevent roads from being blocked, what will happen during the pullout when a larger number of police will be busy evacuating� the Gaza Strip?

There is another looming threat that could compound the manpower issue: soldiers refusing to carry out evacuation-related orders. Three soldiers already have refused to participate in withdrawal-related operations, and have been sentenced to up to 56 days in jail.

Moreover, Orthodox soldiers, serving according to a special arrangement with their yeshivas, known as hesder yeshivas, are asking to be exempted from having to evacuate settlers.

The key to the extent of the refusal phenomenon probably depends on influential rabbis. Some, such as Avraham Shapira, a former Israeli chief rabbi, have come out forcefully in favor of refusal. Others, such as Shlomo Aviner of the Beit El settlement, and Mordechai Elon, head of the Western Wall Yeshiva, are staunchly against any form of refusal, arguing that unity of the people must be preserved at all costs, and that unity within the IDF is crucial.

The army does not intend to make it easy for soldiers who refuse orders. The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, has warned that if hesder rabbis continue telling students to refuse evacuation-related orders, the IDF may reconsider the whole hesder project, which mixes religious study with army service.

Sharon, clearly disturbed by the threat of anarchy and refusal, gave brief interviews to all the major Hebrew dailies. He told Ha�aretz that �under no circumstances can we allow a lawless gang to take control of life in Israel.�

In Yediot Achronot, Sharon declared, �What we are witnessing is not a struggle over the withdrawal from Gaza, but a battle over the character of the state.� He told Ma�ariv, �This wild behavior will stop. Period.�

Despite all the opposition, Sharon is determined to go through with the withdrawal, scheduled to begin Aug. 15. As bad as they might get, the demonstrations and protests are unlikely to deter him.

One thing that could still stop him would be a coup in the Likud to oust Sharon and install Netanyahu in his place. Addressing a major economic conference in Jerusalem, Sharon declared that he was aware of how his opponents �are planning my political ouster.� Though Sharon didn�t mention him by name, everyone knew he meant Netanyahu.

Indeed, Netanyahu�s moves will be crucial. He is under pressure from the far right to put himself at the head of the Likud rebels and move to topple Sharon. But, as a would-be prime minister himself, Netanyahu needs to be careful not to ally himself too closely with the far right.

Netanyahu did vote Sunday to delay the withdrawal by three months, although the Cabinet defeated the proposal by a vote of 18-3.

And in what political analysts called an open challenge to Sharon�s leadership, Netanyahu said he would abstain from a Knesset vote Wednesday on a similar motion.

The way this dilemma plays out could determine the fate of the withdrawal plan.

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