Jerusalem — Opponents of the Gaza disengagement plan are focusing their efforts now on more street demonstrations to force either a referendum on the issue or the collapse of the Sharon government. But they acknowledge that their chances of success are slim.“I think this [turnout] is very good,” said Mordechai Afargan, 23, a yeshiva student from Ashdod, as he scanned the estimated 150,000 who gathered Sunday night in front of the Knesset. “This is the biggest rally we have had here and they say it is going to be the turning point.”
But when asked if he believed the rally would change anything, Afargan replied: “I don’t know. But if you do it every two weeks …”Yaakov Gelobter, 42, who made aliyah from California in 1987 and now lives on Moshav Carmel in southern Israel, said he felt a “lot of pain” among those in the crowd.
“It feels like a wake,” he said. “People are almost resigned to it. … People have to feel angry at what’s happening. Just being here is not enough.”
Gelobter conceded that it would take a “miracle” to stop the disengagement, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes to enact later this year.
“But there’s nothing wrong with believing in miracles,” he added.
Uzi Landau, one of the 13 so-called Likud “rebels” in the Knesset who oppose the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank towns, acknowledged that they face an uphill battle. He put the chances of the disengagement happening at 3 to 1. But he said there are several major obstacles Sharon must overcome before the plan can be implemented: the Knesset’s approval of the compensation package for the residents who are leaving; the Knesset’s passage of the 2005 budget; and the cabinet’s approval at each stage of the four-stage withdrawal plan.
Next week, the Knesset is scheduled to adopt the compensation package for the 8,000 settlers in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said the package is expected to be increased from 2.9 billion shekels to 3.5 billion shekels — nearly $1 billion. That would mean that each family would receive an average of more than $300,000.“There is broad consensus in the government as well as the Knesset to increase the compensation,” Gissin said. “The question is how are the ministers who are opposed to disengagement going to vote? Silvan [Shalom] will vote with, and if Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] doesn’t get caught again by his ambitions … then it will pass and the train will have not only left the station, it will be halfway through.”
“You can’t stop it,” he insisted. “If you stop it midcourse now, everything that you’ve achieved with the United States, with the international community, everything will be erased and Israel will face a security situation such that it couldn’t tolerate. If you come to the world and say we’re not leaving, we’re staying, what would the world say?”
But Landau said 3.5 billion shekels is not enough because the government is asking residents to “leave a beautiful flat” that costs perhaps one-fourth of what homes in major Israeli cities cost.
“They are pushing people to make drastic changes in their lives,” he said.
The deadline for the Knesset to adopt the ’05 budget also is looming. Should the budget not be adopted by March 31, the government would fall and new elections called, putting the disengagement plan on hold. But Gissin said Sharon is “confident” he can surmount the obstacles.
“I believe that at the last moment they [opponents] will blink and Shas, if it doesn’t enter the government, will support [the budget] from the outside, perhaps abstaining but not voting against,” he said of the fervently Orthodox party. “It’s all under fire but there’s no other choice.
“When you go for these kind of excruciating, painful decisions which cut the nation in half, drive a wedge in the nation, you have to have a bigger majority in the Knesset,” Gissin said. “You have to have a broad majority.”
Avi Pazner, a spokesman for the Israeli government, said he believes the compensation package will be adopted by 70 or 80 percent of the Knesset.
“That doesn’t mean they are happy about it,” he said. “This is not something you celebrate. … Big support [in the Knesset] would be an expression of the will of the people.”
Both Pazner and Gissin said the demand for a referendum on the disengagement issue is nothing but a stalling tactic and has never been done in Israel.
“Those who are advancing the idea want to complicate matters and gain time,” Pazner said.
Gissin pointed out that Israel is a “parliamentary democracy, and the sovereign is the parliament. The parliament has decisively voted — with 66 votes — that it supports the disengagement plan. The government of Israel, duly elected in free elections, made a decision on that. There’s a limit to how much a minority can manipulate the majority.”
A referendum would drag out the process and create havoc in the interim, Gissin warned.
“Instead of calming down the situation, this would extend over a period of several months and there would be continuous friction between groups fighting it out in the streets,” he said. “So by the time you get to the referendum, you’ll have blood in the streets.
“There can be no compromise with the rule of law in Israel,” Gissin said.
But Landau said a referendum is essential for the health of the nation.”
There are certain things in a nation’s life that you do, things which are vital to your national security, regardless of what the world — which is not footing the bill — says,” he said. “If the decision [on disengagement] is arrived at democratically through a referendum or a national election, it would be clear that a peace-loving people voted the way they did because they are convinced it will stop terror and give peace a chance in the future.”
Landau argued that Sharon is struggling to remain in power after winning two decisive victories against Labor Party candidates Ehud Barak in 2001 and Amram Mitzna in 2003. But now, he said, Sharon has “thrown out” his historic Likud allies who oppose disengagement and “depends on long-range political rivals like Labor.”
“What kind of success is this?” Landau asked.
Although Landau said he sees no chance now of getting the Knesset to order a referendum, “if there is enough public and political pressure” the Knesset can be changed.
“Democracy is what is at stake here,” he insisted.Landau recalled that in the last election, Sharon said he was prepared to make painful and deep concessions for peace, but only if he had a peace partner on the Palestinian side. Mitzna, on the other hand, advocated a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
“This was the focal point of the entire election,” Landau said. “Now the prime minister is … promoting a policy [the people] voted against.”
Such a radical shift requires Sharon to agree to a referendum or return to the voters for a “new mandate,” he argued.
“This is why even those who are for the disengagement agree with us and say that the rules of the game must be respected,” Landau said.
A survey published in September by the Israeli newspaper Maariv found that 69 percent of the public supports a general referendum on the plan, even though 58 percent of those polled said they would vote for it.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, a Knesset member from the Meimad Party, said although he favors disengagement, he is not convinced it will take place.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “Likud is torn apart. Today I think the chances are much better because of the national unity government and because the vast majority of members in the Knesset are for disengagement. But we’ll have to see through the other conflicts.”