Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plunged a rhetorical sword through Israel’s political right wing on Monday, severing it into roughly two halves.
With three candid sentences a day after the Cabinet approved the “road map” peace plan, Sharon managed to split the center-right empire he had painstakingly constructed over the past three years through diplomacy, carrots, sticks and some guile.
“The idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation — yes, it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation — is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy,” Sharon said at a Likud Party meeting Monday.
“Controlling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on forever,” Sharon continued, ignoring the dropped jaws and jeers among the flock he shepherds. “You want to remain in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem?”
The political fallout was quick. In Sharon’s own Likud Party, almost every legislator took the opportunity to lambaste the prime minister.
Uzi Landau, a veteran Likud legislator, said the speech and the road map were “worse than Oslo,” a put-down nearly akin to an accusation of treason in current Israeli politics.
Even Knesset rookie Gila Gamliel joined the fray, wondering whether “it would have been better if we had accepted Oslo.”
Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky put it differently. A longtime supporter of a democratic Palestinian state, Sharansky — who voted against the plan on Sunday — argued that starting to apply the road map before the Palestinians democratize betrays both Israel and the Palestinians.
“The Palestinian state cannot be a down payment prior to discussion of everything else,” he told JTA.
Many Israelis believe that the European Union, United Nations and Russia — America’s partners in the diplomatic “Quartet” that drafted the road map — are biased against Israel. Their participation eventually will put Israel at loggerheads with the United States, Sharansky predicted.
“Today it’s more difficult to say no than yesterday, but saying no tomorrow will be that much more difficult,” Sharansky warned.
But it’s doubtful that even voices as persuasive as Sharansky’s will change Sharon’s mind or quash the initiative.
Asher Cohen, a political analyst from Bar-Ilan University, says the right won’t sway Sharon — but it also won’t abandon him.
“We’ve seen this type of trauma before, which has split and then destroyed” the governments of former prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu.
This time the Likud, which returned to power in March 2001 through Sharon, as well as the other parties of the right, know the price of leaving the government, Cohen said — “the infiltration of the left.”
There remains one group that is not likely to back down, however. With their dream of settlement outposts spreading through the West Bank vanishing with a flick of Sharon’s pen, settlement leaders are fighting back, hitting Israelis where it hurts most — their Holocaust solar plexus.
A poll released Sunday by the daily Yediot Achronot showed that 56 percent of Israelis support the road map as a way of restarting peace talks — even though they’re pessimistic about where the talks will lead.
Settlement activist and former legislator Elyakim Haetzni minced no words in an interview on Israel Radio, comparing Israelis who support the road map to Jews who “willingly boarded those trains” to concentration camps, “believing everything the Germans told them.”
“The Jews are a people which is very dangerous to itself. It is a people that has brought holocausts down on itself throughout the course of its history,” he said.
The use of such Holocaust imagery shows how threatened the right feels by the plan — and by the fact that Sharon, considered the patron of the settlement movement, had agreed to it.
“This time it’s different,” explained David Wilder, a leader of Hebron’s Jewish community. “At Camp David we had a prime minister,” Ehud Barak, “who was working on his own. He was a loner, operating without any government backing. Here it is a governmental decision, here we have a group of 24 ministers making a decision that is binding, accepting a Palestinian state and all of its implications.”
Wilder believes that settler leaders will bond together like never before to launch fierce demonstrations against the plan. The concessions of the road map, coming after nearly 800 Israelis have been killed in the intifada, indeed are analogous to the Holocaust, he says.
So furious are the settlers with Sharon that they have begun to describe him as an apikoros. The term refers to apostates who, shortly before the fall of the biblical Second Temple, accepted and glorified the dominant non-Jewish culture — even though the Romans wished for the Jews’ destruction.
Settlers fear a civil holocaust that could rip the fabric of Israeli society to shreds — especially if a final peace agreement calls for dismantling the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are now home to more than 200,000 people.
Still, the idea of unifying Israelis around the flag of settlements outpost — especially wielding the charged rhetoric of the Holocaust — could further polarize the public.
Despite the passage of almost 60 years, “Israelis are still not immune to references to the Holocaust,” said Dr. Danny Brom, director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma.
“It serves to express and create fear” by projecting the image of “how horrible things can get if you don’t follow a certain political opinion,” he said.
“But Israeli politicians have learned their lessons,” Cohen added. “They’ll scream and shout, but at the end of the day, they remember who’s the boss here.”