Hawks line up against Sharon


JERUSALEM, Feb. 16 (JTA) � The earthquake in Israel that measured 5 on the Richter scale last week is not the only ground shifting these days in the Jewish state. In the wake of the recent announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel soon could withdraw unilaterally from Jewish settlements from Gaza, the political landscape is shifting as well.

Since Sharon made his remarks two weeks ago, right-wing ministers have been busy mobilizing Cabinet colleagues in an effort to stop the prime minister, while the left-leaning Labor Party has been preparing to embrace Sharon.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hawkish National Union, has written to 10 right-wing ministers urging them to come up with an alternative plan to Sharon�s. The Likud�s Uzi Landau is openly trying to drum up a majority against the prime minister in the Cabinet. And the National Union and the National Religious Party are threatening to bolt the coalition if Sharon goes ahead with his plan.

Some politicians are predicting that Sharon�s move will tear apart the government and bring early elections.

What�s more, some military officials are saying a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip might encourage more terrorism as Palestinians interpret the withdrawal as a retreat under fire.

But Sharon is not backing down.

To take the wind out of the right wing�s sails, the prime minister said he will take the matter directly to the people by calling a nationwide referendum on the Gaza withdrawal plan.

Sharon is hoping that a popular mandate for withdrawal will make it difficult for the right wingers in his own party to continue opposing him, thereby paving the way for a coalition with Labor.

Last week, Matan Vilnai, a Labor leader, said in Washington that the Labor Party would consider joining Sharon�s government if the prime minister has a plan to return to peace talks. Vilnai said the ruling Likud Party could count on Labor�s support if Sharon goes ahead with his plan to uproot Jewish communities in Gaza.

The most active Likud opponent to Sharon�s plan is Landau, a minister without portfolio, who says he is close to assembling a majority of 12 votes in the 23-member Cabinet against the Gaza withdrawal.

So far, Landau counts seven ministers against � Effi Eitam and Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party; Lieberman and Benny Elon of the National Union; and Likud�s Yisrael Katz, Natan Sharansky and Landau himself.

Landau says four other Likud ministers � Benjamin Netanyahu, Meir Sheetrit, Tzachi Hanegbi and Limor Livnat � are leaning toward vote against Sharon�s plan. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom or Shinui�s Eliezer Zandberg could provide a decisive 12th vote against the prime minister.

In his letter to the 10 hawkish ministers, Lieberman attempted to build on Landau�s work. He urged them to set up a joint forum to draft what he calls a �plan for the national camp.�

Lieberman wrote that the �national camp� is divided, merely reacting to left-wing plans like the unofficial Geneva peace proposal. Instead, Lieberman said, the government should come up with a plan of its own � and quickly.

Lieberman proposes �fencing in the Palestinians� in several cantons, with Israel controlling passage between each one.

Clearly, Lieberman�s target is not the Geneva plan, but the prime minister�s. Lieberman wants both to block Sharon�s unilateral disengagement plan and set a political agenda for a post-Sharon era.

Elon, Lieberman�s colleague in the National Union, has been speaking out against the Sharon plan in the United States.

Such actions on the part of ruling coalition members is tantamount to mutiny in Sharon�s government.

The question is: Will Likud Cabinet ministers agree to join the rebel forum, will Sharon vanquish the rebels or will Sharon dump the rebels for new left-wing coalition partners?

Netanyahu�s position is key.

Having staked his political future on the success of his stewardship of Israel�s ailing economy, the finance minister and former prime minister is believed by some pundits to favor the plan that would help propel the economy out of its current slump. That would put Netanyahu in Sharon�s camp of withdrawal from Gaza.

But, if Netanyahu believes the timing is ripe, he could well vote against Sharon�s plan and take the lead of forces in the government opposing Sharon, thereby challenging the prime minister�s leadership.

Netanyahu�s decision could decide the fate of Sharon�s government and the unilateral withdrawal plan.

Several Knesset members and expert observers believe the countdown to early elections has already begun.

One of them is Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a former Sharon ally who now opposes the prime minister�s disengagement plan.

Rivlin told JTA that he does not believe Sharon will be able to keep his present coalition together for long or form a stable government to replace it. He also predicted Netanyahu would not make a leadership bid until new elections are called.

Rivlin�s reasoning is simple: If Sharon gets his plan through the government, the right-wing parties will leave. Then, if Sharon replaces them with Labor, he won�t be able to count on the support of the right-wingers in the Likud or on Labor�s hard left.

That would make Sharon�s government quite vulnerable.

Theoretically, Netanyahu then could make his move. By triggering a vote of �constructive no-confidence� in Sharon, Netanyahu could have an opportunity to take over as prime minister.

But it would be tough for Netanyahu to assemble and hold together a ruling coalition, according to Rivlin, because Netanyahu�s coalition partners would have to be constituted exclusively of hawks and the fervently Orthodox parties.

The hawks would press for special allocations for settlements, and the fervently Orthodox would press for special funding for yeshivas. These financial demands would torpedo the tight fiscal policy upon which Netanyahu has staked his political reputation.

On the other hand, if Sharon fails to get his disengagement plan through, that in itself could be enough to spark elections.

Therefore, Rivlin believes, there is no escaping early elections, probably in 2005. Then the battle for the Likud leadership will begin in earnest.

Sharon, of course, sees things differently.

His aides are already making plans for a referendum on the issue of the Gaza settlements, which they are sure he will win. Recent public opinion polls show that an overwhelming 77 percent of Israelis favor withdrawal from Gaza.

Winning a referendum with such an overwhelming majority would give Sharon the moral and political authority to proceed with his plan, perhaps enabling him to set up a stable government with Labor.

But any referendum on the fledgling plan still is a long way off.

In the meantime, Lieberman and the other right-wing members of Sharon�s coalition are looking to the future � working, watching and waiting.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

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