The Likud Party vote earlier this month against Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan may have been a defining moment in Israeli politics -- but not in the way the ostensible winners, Likud hawks and the Israeli settler movement, had hoped.
Paradoxically, the Likud's rejection of the Gaza Strip withdrawal seems to have sparked a huge backlash that could help the Israeli prime minister push his plan through.
Angered at being "held hostage" by a tiny minority -- the naysayers in the Likud referendum constitute about 1 percent of Israel's population -- Israelis have rallied in support of a withdrawal from Gaza and evacuation of Jewish settlements there. They hope the process will eventually end, or at least contain, Palestinian terrorism.
Opinion columns in the media struck a new, harsh anti-settler note, and public opinion polls showed unprecedentedly high support for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. The deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers in Gaza last week further fueled the pro-withdrawal mood.
On May 15, about 120,000 Israelis attended a huge demonstration in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square under the slogan, "Get out of Gaza and start talking."
Sharon aides said he is determined to go ahead with his disengagement plan, and that the new mood, along with widespread international support, will help him. But Sharon still will have to find a way to get his recalcitrant Likud Knesset faction and a majority in his Cabinet to back a slightly amended version of the pullout.
In the hardest hitting of the anti-settler newspaper articles, Ha'aretz columnist Ari Shavit declared that in "tyrannizing the majority," the settlers had gone too far. Coming from Shavit, an influential commentator who opposed the Oslo accords and often is critical of the Israeli left, the aggressive tone was doubly poignant: He accused the settlers of immorally trying to suck the rest of the population into a war to perpetuate the settlements and the occupation.
For that war, Shavit wrote, there are no soldiers and no volunteers.
"The solid Israeli majority feels disgust for this war," he wrote. "The solid Israeli majority reviles this war. The solid Israeli majority will take no part in this war."
In the clash of interests between the settlers and other Israelis, Shavit wrote, it was a case of "us or them."
"The disengagement referendum has made one thing clear," he concluded. "It is either the Israelis or the settlers."
The settlers were not surprised by the backlash. After the May 2 Likud referendum, Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, political secretary of the Yesha Settlers' Council, declared that though they had won a battle, he expected "the war" to save the settlements to intensify.
Another article in Ha'aretz captured the settlers' mood: The settlers are the perfect foil for the Israeli left, Nadav Shragai wrote, because their presence allows the left to shift blame for the disastrous Oslo peace process that created a terrorist quasi-state on Israel's borders.
The settlers argue that it is not their presence in the Gaza Strip that leads to Palestinian terrorism, but the Palestinian refusal to come to terms with Israel. To counteract the new anti-settler mood, they intend to mount a nationwide door-to-door campaign explaining their case.
But they face an uphill battle. A May 14 public opinion poll in the Yediot Achronot newspaper confirmed the swing against the settlers: 71 percent of respondents said they favored a unilateral pullout from Gaza, compared to 62 percent just 10 days earlier. Among Likud supporters, 63 percent backed withdrawal, up from 55 percent in the earlier survey.
Perhaps most tellingly, 68 percent of those polled said Sharon should carry out his plan, despite the results of the Likud referendum.
The pressure on Sharon to proceed with disengagement intensified with the May 15 demonstration in Rabin Square demanding an immediate withdrawal from Gaza. The leitmotif was that the Likud voters were only a small minority, and that the vast majority of the nation wants to see soldiers and settlers out of Gaza.
"This is not a left-wing rally. It's a rally of the majority," Labor Party leader Shimon Peres declared from the podium. "We won't let 1 percent of the people put us back on the road to war."
Twenty-two years ago, a similar demonstration in the same square called for Sharon's resignation as defense minister during the Lebanon War. Ironically, Israeli left-wingers now are demonstrating in favor of Sharon's disengagement plan and promising to support him if he carries it out.
The demonstration came after a week in which 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in action in the Gaza Strip, prompting comparisons to Israeli losses during the 18-year guerrilla war in Lebanon, which ended with Israel's withdrawal in May 2000.
Many Israelis on the left and right now argue that Israel similarly will have to withdraw from Gaza, and that it makes sense to do so earlier rather than later, with fewer losses.
Even some Likud activists are making the argument. Leah Oz, chairwoman of the party's Ramat Gan branch, said she had two children close to military age, and she didn't want them to put their lives at risk for a lost cause.
The Shinui Party, Sharon's main coalition partner, also is putting pressure on the prime minister. Shinui's leader, Justice Minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, is threatening to bolt the government unless Sharon goes ahead with his unilateral disengagement plan or starts talking to the Palestinians.
Sharon aides said the prime minister welcomes the pressure from all quarters. They said the new public mood has reinforced his resolve to carry out the plan.
Sharon said he will present an amended version of the plan to the Cabinet by the end of the month. But his aides made clear that Sharon will not alter the substance of it, because it was on the basis of his original plan that he got widespread international support, key American commitments on borders and Palestinian refugees and pledges of major financial support for the Palestinians after Israel withdraws.
"There will be no mini- or midiplans," an aide said. "But the prime minister may take some new, complementary ideas aboard."
The aides said Sharon will focus his efforts on persuading the Likud Knesset faction to back an amended plan, circumventing the party referendum. With the support of a majority in the Knesset faction, Sharon would be able to get the old-new plan approved in the Cabinet and the Knesset.
Given the pro-disengagement momentum, former Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid said the "die is cast," and that it now is just a matter of time before Israel leaves Gaza.
Still, it's an open question whether Sharon, aided by the public mood and the international consensus, will be able to impose his will on his party and on the settlers.
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