When Ariel Sharon returns to Israel at the end of this week, he will face what could be his most challenging two weeks as prime minister as he attempts to persuade his Likud Party to adopt his disengagement plan in a May 2 referendum.
Sharon hopes to use the commitments he won this week from President George W. Bush as leverage to garner support for the plan. But Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of the Gush Etzion bloc just south of Jerusalem, said that may backfire.
“You don’t go outside to influence your vote,” he said. “It is against democracy to go first to the U.S. and then come back here. He should ask them [Likud voters] for their assessment first” before trying to sell it to the U.S.
The disengagement plan calls for a total withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, except for troops along the Egyptian border to guard against smuggling, and four small West Bank settlements.
Even before Sharon left for Washington, radio and newspaper ads in Israel came out on both sides of the issue. And polls showed Likud voters supporting and rejecting the plan.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
But he said the “most logical assumption” is that the plan would be adopted as a “vote of confidence.”
In reaching out to the undecided, opponents of the plan led by Likud members Uzi Landau and Natan Sharansky are using the slogan “Vote yes, get Peres.” That is a reference to Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who is expected to join the government — perhaps as foreign minister — if the referendum is adopted and right-wing members of Sharon’s governing coalition make good on their promise to quit.
Steinberg said he does not believe such a campaign will succeed because the “average Likud voter no longer sees Peres as a serious threat. He is in his 80s and he is not going to impose policies on Sharon.
“A slogan that may have worked in 1996 is not going to scare Likud voters today,” he insisted. “And the other theme they are working on is showing settlers being thrown out of their houses to try to create sympathy for them. But [that is not going to work] for Israelis who have sons and daughters out there defending 40 or 50 settlers in the middle of nowhere — and with no substantive case for preserving the settlements.”
Sharon said Monday that he is committed to retaining five major settlement blocs as part of his disengagement plan. They are the Gush Etzion bloc; Givat Zeev, just north of Jerusalem; Ariel in the heart of the West Bank; Kiryat Arba, which borders the West Bank city of Hebron south of Jerusalem (as well as several settlements within Hebron); and Maale Adumim, the largest settlement with more than 30,000 residents.
Goldstein said he is not comforted by Sharon’s statement because Sharon cannot be trusted. Sharon once said the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip was as important as Tel Aviv, now he wants it evacuated, Goldstein explained.
“We feel that Zionism is the return of the Jewish people to the homeland of Israel,” he said, “and that uprooting communities in Israel is immoral."