Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Knocked back, Sharon is down -- but not out

The Likud party didn't give its prime minister what he wanted, but he'll hold on to power in any case

By Barry Rubin

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part

of the West Bank has been overwhelmingly defeated by a referendum within his own party, Likud, in what seems to be a humiliating defeat. Yet this is likely to have little or no effect on Sharon's intention to carry out the plan.

At first, this seems surprising, since he said before the referendum that he would abide by its outcome. But Sharon is 75 years old and probably within two years of retirement. He is determined that his plan become his political legacy. Since there is no precedent for a party referendum, he can argue that the vote does not bind him.

Moreover, Sharon made sure that his main political rivals -- notably former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- supported his plan. They are now in no position to challenge him as the champions of the opposition within Likud.

So while some members may walk out, Sharon can easily hold on to control of the party. In addition, many Sharon supporters, torn by what they saw as the plan's combination of costs and benefits, stayed home or even voted against it, but still want Sharon as their leader.

But Sharon is prepared to go even further in taking political risks to push through the withdrawal. Small right-wing parties in his coalition have already announced that his determination to do so will make them walk out of the government. Sharon will then turn to the leader of the opposition, 80-year-old former prime minister Shimon Peres, to form a national unity government. And Peres is ready to do so.

The passionate debate stirred up by Sharon's plan shows how truly revolutionary his proposal is. Having the army uproot Jewish settlements -- with inevitable scenes of settlers resisting and being dragged off -- will be a traumatic event for the country. The plan also entails considerable strategic risks, which, probably more than the prospect of uprooted settlements, account for the large "no" vote by Likud members.

A key concern is the precedent of withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Today, most Israelis believe that this step, though justified on strategic grounds in the face of constant attacks by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, convinced Palestinians that violence worked. In the same manner, a withdrawal from Gaza, many people worry, will bring increased anarchy there and a rise in overall terrorist attacks.

But convinced -- as are most Israelis -- that there is no Palestinian partner ready to negotiate seriously and implement its promises, the prime minister wants to prepare for an extended interim period. Assuming that terrorist attacks against Israel are going to continue under any circumstances, he seeks to improve the country's strategic position to handle this war.

Combined with the Gaza Strip's long-completed security fence and one being built near Israel's border with the West Bank, pulling out of the most exposed positions is intended to reduce casualties and the number of clashes with the Palestinians. A secondary intention is to show the world that Israel is ready to withdraw from most of the remaining territories it captured in 1967 in exchange for real peace.

The US and Britain have supported the withdrawal plan, while most other European countries have been critical. While demanding an Israeli withdrawal for years, the Palestinian leadership opposes Sharon's plan, arguing it is intended to create permanent borders. Nevertheless, if implemented, Sharon's proposal would leave Palestinians in control of about 99 percent of the Gaza Strip and roughly 50 percent of the West Bank.

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