In announcing a plan to evacuate nearly all of the Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is signaling that he's serious about creating large blocs of Palestinian territory free of Israelis -- and that he is willing to gamble with his political future.
Sharon hopes to convince the United States that his plan for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians not only is consistent with the internationally approved "road map" peace plan, but that he has every chance of taking it forward.
However, as soon as Sharon made his dramatic announcement Monday about a Gaza withdrawal, a chorus of angry right wingers in his coalition, including some in his own Likud Party, threatened to topple his government -- with some accusing the prime minister of conjuring up grandiose schemes to deflect attention from corruption investigations swirling around him and his sons.
A few days earlier, Sharon had given instructions to Giora Eiland, his newly appointed national security adviser, to prepare a detailed disengagement plan regarding the West Bank security fence that would give the Palestinians maximum freedom and give Israel maximum security.
A close Sharon aide told JTA that the need to get international support for the disengagement plan, and the desire to cause the Palestinians as few humanitarian problems as possible, could lead to the fence being rerouted closer to the pre-1967 boundary, known as the Green Line.
"The more consensus there is over the route and the fewer humanitarian problems it creates, the more likely is it to be accepted as a positive stage in the road map," the aide said.
Indeed, if the plan is to fly, American support will be crucial. Sharon will take a detailed draft of Eiland's proposal when he goes to Washington later this month to meet President Bush. Before that, American envoys are expected in Jerusalem to discuss it.
So far, the American response has been encouraging. Until recently, the official U.S. position had been that the road map, though stalled, was the only game in town. After a late January visit to Washington, however, Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, reported that the administration was ready to listen to other ideas. For Sharon, that was the signal to proceed.
Skeptics point out that Sharon did not give any deadline for the planned evacuations. But his deputy, Ehud Olmert, the Likud Cabinet minister most supportive of the disengagement policy, says a pullback will begin around June or July.
That is, if Sharon is still in power by then. The right-wing National Union bloc and the National Religious Party both have made clear that they will quit Sharon's government if a single settlement is touched.
If they do, however, Sharon may well be able to form an alternative government with the Labor Party. Labor's temporary leader, Shimon Peres reportedly told party colleagues Tuesday that he would support the Gaza evacuation -- possibly clearing the way for another national unity government.
On the face of it, a coalition with Labor would give Sharon a strong coalition of 74 in the 120-member Knesset: 40 legislators from Likud, 19 from Labor and 15 from the centrist Shinui Party.
Paradoxically, however, that would leave him at the mercy of the right-wingers in his own Likud, since 15 Likudniks voting against the government would be enough to bring it down. A rival like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could trigger a party rebellion that would topple Sharon and bring Netanyahu to power.
Sharon, though, is confident that public support for disengagement will deter his Likud rivals. A poll in Tuesday's Yediot Achronot newspaper showed that 59 percent of the public support the Gaza evacuation plan -- 34 percent oppose it -- while 57 percent believe Sharon is acting for reasons of state and only 24 percent think he is motivated by the corruption investigation.
To build on that support, Sharon's office has launched a campaign to convince the public that the plan is in Israel's best interest. Sharon's aide, for example, paints a rosy picture in which disengagement helps produce a Palestinian peace partner by improving the Palestinians' quality of life.
The goal, he says, is to have Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with no Israeli soldiers, no Jewish settlers, no blockades and no roadblocks. The Palestinians would have absolute freedom of movement and would run their own affairs.
With help from the United States and the European Union, the Palestinians could rebuild their economy and provide jobs.
According to the official, Sharon hopes that once the Palestinians taste freedom and prosperity, their attraction to terrorism will decrease and a new, widely backed Palestinian leadership will emerge that is ready to talk peace based on the road map, with all issues -- including final borders -- on the table.
But there is another, far less upbeat scenario. Israeli officials acknowledge that the current situation on the Palestinian side is increasingly chaotic and that the Palestinian Authority is not in control.
Although they long have demanded an Israeli withdrawal, many Palestinian officials reportedly fear that a unilateral and uncoordinated one could lead to a complete breakdown of law and order -- from which a strengthened Hamas could come to power, refusing to negotiate peace with Israel.
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