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It’s lonely at the top

Al-Ahram Weekly – 6 -12 May 2004

Ariel Sharon emerged on Sunday from the referendum of Likud Party members on his unilateral “disengagement” plan from Gaza stranded in a political cul de sac.

Even though he is sitting on one of the biggest electoral majorities in Israeli history, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now friendless, without allies among the settlers whose support he once cultivated or the mainstream of his own party. Even the White House was sounding cautious about the special relationship.

Israeli analysts suggested that Sharon, the army general who had never played by the rules, might yet stage another of his famous comebacks after his defeat by a 20 point margin in the poll, on a turnout of just over half the Likud Party’s membership.

Several unlikely scenarios were mooted. Sharon might resign without a fight and effectively hand the premiership to his rival Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave the plan less than half-hearted approval. He could disband the Knesset and force new elections on an already ballot-weary public. He could put the same disengagement vote directly to the divided cabinet, further damaging his party, and then to the whole Knesset. And he could stage a lengthy and bitter national referendum.

The last strategy, though seemingly an easy way out for the cornered prime minister, would be far more complicated than it sounds. Sharon would have to expose one of the more unpleasant features of Israeli politicking: A national referendum would reopen the debate about whether Israel’s Palestinian citizens, some 20 per cent of the population, should be entitled to vote on a measure defining the borders of the state.

The same problem faced his predecessor, Ehud Barak, when he briefly proposed a nationwide referendum on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

If the Palestinian minority were allowed to vote, Sharon would risk damaging accusations that he had relied on the “disloyal” Arab electorate to pass his measure. And if the minority were banned from the process, the decision would almost certainly be challenged in court and would provoke international condemnation.

Given these unappetising prospects, the most likely course for Sharon to follow is one of buying time. His loyal deputy, Ehud Olmert, responded to the news of Sharon’s defeat with a declaration that the disengagement plan was “unstoppable”. However, by late Monday the prime minister’s advisers were saying the scheme would be reformulated in more palatable form: what they termed “a diet disengagement plan”. The difficulty for Sharon is that he was already serving up a meagre dish.

Only a few thousand settlers of the 400,000 settlers in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem — living in a couple of dozen settlements, from a total number of over 140 — would be evacuated from the West Bank and Gaza. How many calories did he hope to cut from his plan and still call it a disengagement?

One apparent option being considered would lead to the closing of a total of five small settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But that sounded less like a diplomatic policy and more like the desperate act of a drowning man.

Some ministers suggested Sharon’s eventual “abridged” plan would exclude the “bonus” evacuation of a handful of minor settlements in the West Bank, while others claimed it might involve a simple pullout from the Palestinian cities occupied by the army two years ago.

The former plan would not ease Sharon’s difficulties: His defeat was engineered by an emotional campaign for the hearts of Likud members waged mainly by the settlers of Gaza. Faced with children from its biggest settlement bloc, Gush Katif, pleading with them at polling stations, Sharon’s party caved in. They found the idea of Jews being forced from their homes too painful to countenance.

The latter plan would take Sharon, and the Israeli army, back to square one. It would effectively be a recognition by default of the Palestinian Authority and could be interpreted by the Europeans as partial implementation of their preferred peace plan, the roadmap. Sharon’s disengagement was itself an escape route from the terms of the roadmap, which he loathes.

Sharon’s main concern is that he find a way to keep the White House on side. In a statement to his Likud faction on Monday, he said: “I propose to present the government and Knesset with a plan to advance Israel’s interests; otherwise we will face most difficult situations.”

Those “difficult situations” would flow from a loss of wholehearted American support of the kind pledged by President Bush in his recent uncritical backing for the terms of Sharon’s plan. A State Department official was quoted in The Washington Post this week as saying: “The real objective in giving Sharon the blank check he left with was to shore up his political support at home. We paid a very high price and got nothing in return.”

The danger for the Prime Minister is that if he uses up his capital with the White House — including promises of money to dig Israel out of its costly occupation of Gaza — the diplomatic ball will be back in the European court.

In the absence of a credible Israeli plan, Sharon risks allowing the roadmap to be revived. Unlike the unilateral disengagement plan, the roadmap recognises a Palestinian negotiating partner, makes demands for peace, even if very unequal ones compared to those made of the Palestinians, on the Israeli government, and requires the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

Sharon therefore has to sell his slimmed down initiative both to a more wary American administration and to coalition partners prepared to support it. Neither prospect is hopeful.

In his government coalition the extreme right-wing of the National Religious Party and the National Union are adamantly opposed to any sort of pullout from occupied land. And the right-wing in his Likud Party, having tasted blood, is not going to rush to sign up for a pared-down evacuation. An added headache is that the centre secular Shinui Party is threatening to bolt the coalition if Sharon fails to deliver on disengagement.

Sharon might still be able to salvage his government if he could rely on the normally promiscuous Shimon Peres to lead Labour into a unity government. But that appears unlikely for the time being. Labour has more to gain from leading an assault on the lame duck premiership of Sharon and pushing for a new election. They could hardly fare worse than they did last time and would be able to sell themselves as the party prepared to make the painful concessions the Likud could not for peace.

Amid all the political intrigues, Sharon is ever conscious that he is facing the imminent fallout from the attorney general’s decision on whether to pursue corruption charges against him over the Greek island affair. Even if he is cleared, the scandal will not easily abate while he is so deeply mired in political problems.

The next few weeks will demand of Sharon all his survival skills.

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