Under the rustle of shifting cue cards, there was a new tone to Ariel Sharon’s voice: nervousness.
The Israeli prime minister took to the airwaves Thursday to proclaim his certainty that his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip would pass muster with his Likud Party in a crucial referendum Sunday. But his repeated appeals to the party faithful made the triumphalism seem tenuous at best.
“You cannot be in favor of me but against the plan I am championing,” Sharon said in remarks to Israel Radio that were almost identical to an interview he gave to Army Radio. “I do not want to think of the alternative, which would damage our relations with the United States, after all the gains I made there, and ultimately bring about the Likud’s downfall.”
Polls ahead of the vote do not bode well for Sharon’s disengagement plan: According to Israel Radio, 51 percent of Likud members are opposed to the plan, with just 39 percent in favor. The rest are undecided, but they are being subjected to vigorous lobbying by settlers who want to remain in Gaza.
Similar polls in the Yediot Achronot and Ma’ariv newspapers also found Likud naysayers in the lead, albeit by a smaller margin.
Despite landmark U.S. backing for the Sharon plan — under which Israel would pull out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank — critics say any withdrawal under fire is a recipe for more Palestinian terrorism.
But Sharon insists that his unilateralism is the best way to sideline extremists.
“Whoever believes in me must vote for the disengagement plan,” he told Army Radio. “Otherwise it will be a victory for” Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Hamas.
If Sharon loses Sunday’s vote, it’s not clear whether that will mean his political demise. He told the Knesset that he won’t consider the referendum binding, but most analysts believe Sharon’s career will be over if his own party rejects the plan on which he has staked his historical legacy.
Sharon has powerful partners in the government who never wanted to leave such a fateful decision in the hands of the 193,000 rank-and-file Likud members.
Likud’s relatively small membership comprises only a fraction of those who vote for the Likud in Knesset elections. Unlike in the United States, the vast majority of Israeli voters are not registered party members.
Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid said his secularist Shinui Party wanted Sharon to bring the plan up for Cabinet approval no matter what Likud members decide.
“If I were Arik Sharon, I would be worried and annoyed that the Likudnik machismo, the feeling that the Arabs have to be screwed no matter where it leads, is what is guiding this party instead of careful calculation of what might lead to peace,” Lapid said, referring to Sharon by his nickname.
A Sharon adviser called in for urgent consultations after Thursday’s polls said the prime minister might cast his net wider in search of public approval.
“If, God forbid, Likud does not support the plan, I think the prime minister should hold a plebiscite and then bring the plan to the Knesset for ratification,” Eli Landau told Yediot’s Web site. “With all due respect, Likud does not do the deciding for the entire nation.”