The national debate in Israel over the propriety of defending isolated settlements is expected to intensify after the Passover holiday as more than 200,000 Likud Party members are asked to approve Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip.
“In the last couple of years, there has been an increasing debate in Israel about alternatives and whether the country has stretched itself too far in protecting isolated settlements,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “This debate will hit full stride in the process of this referendum.”
Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of Diaspora Affairs, will lead the opponents of the plan, while Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will spearhead efforts to garner support for it. (Olmert was unavailable for comment.)
The Likud Party vote is expected to be held next month after Sharon returns from an April 14 meeting with President George W. Bush.
The disengagement proposal Sharon outlined last week calls for the removal of all 7,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip, as well as four small settlements in the West Bank. In addition, all troops except those at Gaza’s border with Egypt also would be withdrawn from the Strip.
“I hope that by next Passover I’ll be in the midst of the disengagement process,” Sharon told the Israeli newspaper Maariv in a holiday interview.
Sharansky said that although Sharon speaks of disengagement, “it’s clear there can be no disengagement.”
“The only thing that will happen is that we will be taking away settlers … but there will not be an end to terrorism. The prime minister says we will not be responsible for Palestinians [anymore], but we will be as responsible as before,” Sharansky said. “This is a one-sided step and it is not clear” what Israel will get in return.
Asked his assessment of Likud support for the disengagement plan, Sharansky said that “as long as it is vague, people will be caught up with the idea of disengaging ourselves from responsibility [for the Palestinians]. But as [Sharon] becomes more and more specific, I don’t see him getting a majority of Likud support.”
Sharansky said there are some members of Likud who are “not ready to take an active part [against the plan] because they want to wait until after [Sharon’s] trip to America.”
“Although they are ready to be against it, they don’t want to undermine their relationship with the prime minister because they are thinking of their future career,” he said.
But Sharansky insisted that their opposition to Sharon’s disengagement plan is not personal. “It’s not against him,” he said. “It is a principled issue.”
David Newman, chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, said he is convinced that the vote is “going to be close.”
“The vote is being held by a right-wing political party that overall is inclined to be against the plan,” Newman said. “But he [Sharon] is playing the democracy card.”
Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the settlers in the Gaza Strip, said he is confident Likud members will reject the plan.
“The Likud membership has already voted against a Palestinian state and against the evacuation of settlements,” Sternberg said. “I think the Likud Party is strongly in favor of us.”
But Sternberg said he is concerned that Sharon may “make a lot of political tricks to make the final results” come out in favor of the withdrawal. And even if the plan is defeated, Sternberg said he believes Sharon would implement it anyway. Sharon has promised that the results of the Likud vote would be binding.
“Sharon has proven in the past that democracy is not his strong side,” Sternberg said.
Yuval Steinitz, a Likud member and chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the Likud vote “cannot be binding because according to the law the prime minister has to do whatever is in Israel’s interests.”
If the Likud membership does reject the plan, Steinitz said he believes “the prime minister will come back with a similar plan and not put it to a vote.” Steinitz said he is “confident it will pass,” but that if the outcome appears doubtful, Sharon might cancel the vote and ask the general electorate to decide.
Should it pass the Likud members, the issue would be put before the cabinet.
“Most Likud ministers already said they would take the poll as obligatory and follow the Likud referendum,” Steinitz noted.
Although it may not be necessary, the issue may also be brought to the Knesset, where Steinitz said it would have overwhelming support.
Newman said that should the cabinet back the withdrawal plan, he would expect some right-wing members to leave, thus opening the door for Shimon Peres, leader of the Labor Party, to join the government.
Although Peres denied last week that there have been talks about Labor joining the government, Sharon said there have been “contacts.”
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believes Peres will wait until Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decides whether to indict Sharon on bribery charges, as recommended by the senior state prosecutor, Edna Arbel, who works for Mazuz.
“I can’t see Peres walking into the government a day before an indictment,” Makovsky said. [Sharon] can’t count on Labor walking in until Mazuz” makes a decision, which is expected in about two months.
“Sharon in the next two months is facing two of the biggest political minefields he has faced in a long time,” Makovsky observed. “He needs to navigate both, and the Mazuz thing is not in his hands.”
Commenting on the bribery allegations, which allege that real estate developer David Appel paid the Sharon family more than $700,000 to win Sharon’s support for a tourism project on a Greek island, the prime minister said last week: “My hands are clean.”
Makovsky said Sharon is trying to win Bush’s support for his disengagement plan as leverage with Likud members.
“He has prided himself on coordination with Washington and he views the support of the Bush administration as indispensable in getting the party backing he needs,” Makovsky said. “He may also try to exploit a certain sense among the rank and file that the legal establishment in Israel has always been persecuting him.
Makovsky suggested that Sharon may also harbor an “inner hope” that winning the support of Bush and Likud would make it hard for Mazuz to indict him.
Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University said he believes Sharon did his homework and decided to bring the issue to a vote of Likud members because he believes he will gain their backing.
“Sharon looked at it very carefully and would not take a risk if he did not think he could do it,” he said.
But continued terror attacks, such as the one at an isolated settlement in the West Bank last Friday night in which an Israeli man was killed and his 14-year-old daughter wounded, could undermine that support.
“We will see more Palestinian attacks against small, isolated settlements so that the Palestinians can claim that they worked to push out Israel [from Gaza],” Steinberg said. “As these attacks increase, it will be harder for Likud members to vote in favor of the withdrawal because they would then be seen as retreating.”
Security forces were ordered to remain on high alert throughout the Passover holiday, and a general closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is to remain in effect at least until after Israel’s Independence Day, April 26.
At least 58 terror warnings were received by the beginning of Passover. The terror groups Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Fatah Tanzim have pledged to carry out terrorist attacks to avenge Israel’s killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki has urged all Israelis with valid gun permits to carry their weapons during the holiday.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Sharon rebuked Tourism Minister Benny Elon and Housing and Construction Minister Ephraim Eitam for criticizing the disengagement plan during their frequent visits to the United States.
Eitam, in an interview with The Jewish Week during a visit here last month, said he opposed the plan because it could “be interpreted as a victory for terror and defeat of the free world.”
“If we leave Gaza, in addition to what happened in Lebanon [Israeli troops withdrew from there in 2000], the conclusion will be that they can defeat a democratic and free state,” Eitam said. “At the end of the day, they will believe that if they are determined enough they will win in Iraq and in Europe and other places.”
Of the disengagement plan, Eitam said simply: “You don’t reward terror. You don’t give terrorists your backyard and get nothing in return. I haven’t heard a rational explanation of the plan, and that tells me that something is very wrong in the way it was all worked out.”