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In Showdown over Referendum, Sharon Faces Gravest Political Test

October 19, 2004
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With opposition mounting among settlers and in his own Likud Party, Ariel Sharon’s political future and the fate of his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank may be decided in the Knesset next week. The Israeli prime minister hopes to win a decisive majority in the Oct. 26 vote on his disengagement plan, laying to rest the debate over its legitimacy and blocking growing pressure for a nationwide referendum.

But a victory is not a foregone conclusion — and if he loses, it’s difficult to see how Sharon can continue as prime minister.

On the face of it, Sharon would seem to be assured of a comfortable majority. As things stand, he can count on a total of 65-69 votes in the 120-member Knesset: 20-25 votes in Likud, 21 from Labor, 15 from Shinui, six from Yahad and two from breakaway legislators.

Of the remaining 51-55 Knesset members, up to 35, including as many as 20 Likud rebels, seem set to vote against. Another 21 legislators, including 16 from fervently Orthodox parties eyeing spots in a future Sharon coalition, are likely to abstain.

If those figures hold up, Sharon will silence calls for a referendum, open up coalition-building possibilities and secure both his own political future and the road to disengagement.

But there’s a catch: A majority in the Likud’s Knesset faction is trying to foist a referendum on Sharon. If they succeed, the Oct. 26 Knesset vote, rather than being a defining moment for disengagement, will be reduced to a virtually irrelevant sideshow. The final decision on whether or not to go ahead with the disengagement plan effectively will have been removed from the Knesset and handed to the people.

Sharon sees the referendum idea as a ruse to delay implementation of the disengagement plan. He argues that having been elected prime minister, he has a mandate to conduct Israeli policy as he sees fit.

Referendum advocates know it would take months if not years to legislate the ballot, and will try to use the legislative process to delay disengagement indefinitely, Sharon says.

But Likud pressure for a referendum is welling up. Among the party heavyweights in favor are Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat.

After meeting settler leaders over the weekend, Livnat declared that a referendum was necessary to prevent a serious split in Israeli society — even, “God forbid, a civil war.”

Livnat is proposing that the Knesset vote go ahead as scheduled, but with a rider that makes it meaningless: that it be contingent on the results of a future referendum.

The mounting pressure led to a Likud faction meeting Monday in which the referendum issue topped the agenda. Most of the faction, even some of Sharon’s supporters, backed the idea.

Some Likud legislators may condition their Knesset vote on a commitment from Sharon to hold a referendum. If he won’t budge, and if enough Likud legislators vote against, Sharon conceivably could lose the crucial ballot.

Casting even more of a shadow on the Knesset vote is the fact that President Moshe Katsav also favors a referendum. The president has no formal political power in Israel and rarely expresses an opinion on contentious issues, but when he does his views have moral weight.

Katsav argues that a successful referendum will create a wider consensus around disengagement and will answer critics who claim Sharon has no mandate for such a radical move.

In the run-up to the Knesset vote, the settlers will make a supreme effort to convince Likud legislators to insist on a referendum and refuse to vote for disengagement unless Sharon gives way. Whichever way it turns out, they argue, a referendum will help them cool tempers among the settler population; it also will make it easier to persuade Orthodox soldiers to obey orders to evacuate settlers despite a recent rabbinical ruling that they should refuse to do so.

Another factor that could upset Sharon’s calculations is the state budget: A budget vote is scheduled for the week after the disengagement ballot.

Labor and other opposition parties, which support Sharon on disengagement, oppose his economic policies and are certain to nix the budget. If the Likud rebels add their votes against, the budget won’t pass.

That could set off a process leading to elections next spring, before disengagement begins. According to Israeli law, failure to pass the budget by next April automatically will trigger an election.

That would delay implementation of the disengagement plan, but also might cost some of the rebels their Knesset seats — a prospect that might give them cold feet.

Sharon could still press for a Knesset vote unlinked to any referendum commitment. But even if he wins, and even if he manages to pass the budget, his opponents are not going to melt away.

Sharon therefore could give way and agree to a referendum-linked Knesset vote — but that could stymie his disengagement plan and leave him weakened and without credibility.

Worst of all, he could lose the Knesset vote and find himself staring into a political abyss.

What makes Sharon’s position especially poignant is the fact that it’s his own Likud faction that is threatening to bring him down. The fate of disengagement, then, could hinge on whether Sharon can outmaneuver the rebels within his own party.

(Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.)

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