As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon powers ahead with plans for disengagement from the Gaza Strip, charges are flying between proponents and naysayers determined to gain monopolies on legitimacy, each side accusing the other of trampling democratic norms.
The settlers claim Sharon does not have a popular majority for his plan and accuse him of "behaving like a dictator." Sharon retorts that the settler claims are a deliberate ploy to justify undemocratic, violent resistance.
To settle the legitimacy question and take the sting out of the settler campaign, some pundits and politicians are suggesting a national referendum on the evacuation issue.
Sharon says no. He argues that these proposals are a ruse to hold up, and ultimately sink, his plan, which also includes evacuating some West Bank settlements.
The arguments over legitimacy and the referendum proposal will almost certainly dominate public discourse in Israel in the coming months.
In a front-page editorial, Amnon Dankner, editor of the mass circulation Ma'ariv newspaper, compared the current situation with that in the months leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin nine years ago. Dankner implied that Rabin had ridden roughshod over democratic norms and so provoked the settlers' anger and violence that led to his assassination, and that Sharon was now doing the same thing.
The Rabin government, Dankner wrote, had only achieved a majority for the Oslo accords by "buying" the vote of right-wing Knesset member Alex Goldfarb, making him a deputy minister and providing him with the Mitsubishi sedan that came with the position. This, wrote Dankner, was "democracy only in name, not in spirit, not true democracy." And, he continued, "it's obvious how this pushed the settlers into a corner, and how it lit the fires of incitement and murder."
Now, according to Dankner, Sharon is doing something similar: He has ignored party votes against his plan and fired right-wing ministers simply to obtain a Cabinet majority for it.
"The prime minister," Dankner wrote, "is pushing the disengagement plan with a blunt, crude and ugly trampling of democratic values and majority decision," and, like Rabin, would be partly to blame for the consequences.
In Dankner's view, the way to avoid this would be to reinforce the legitimacy of the prime minister's policy by holding a national referendum -- a vote he is virtually certain to win. Although Dankner was criticized for implying that Rabin was largely to blame for his own assassination, several pundits and politicians agreed with his demand for a referendum.
The most outspoken of them was Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He argued that the Gaza pullout plan is tearing the nation apart, and that a referendum would help reduce tension and preserve unity.
He proposed expedited Knesset passage of a referendum law, which would be required to even hold a referendum. Then should a referendum be held, he supports putting just one simple question to the voters: "Are you for or against the gradual evacuation process approved by the government?"
But as simple as it seems, Netanyahu's proposal highlights the complexity of the issue. He speaks of expedited passage of a referendum law, but legal experts say it could take months, if not years.
First, there is the general question of what circumstances could lead to invocation of a referendum. Then, there is the matter of the referendum question. Sharon would never accept Netanyahu's formulation; the prime minister wants to carry out the evacuation process in one fell swoop, rather than in stages.
Moreover, legislators could haggle for months over whether the referendum would need a simple majority or a plurality of 60 percent or more. Opponents of Sharon's plan could delay things further by challenging the legislation to create a referendum in the courts.
Sharon's allies suspect that Netanyahu's proposal is merely intended to embarrass the prime minister by putting him in a no-win situation. If he accepts Netanyahu's proposal, passing the legislation will take so long it will sink the evacuation plan; if he doesn't, he will appear undemocratic, afraid to put his plan to the nation for approval.
Sharon confidant, Ehud Olmert, argues that the very raising of the referendum idea by Netanyahu implies that Sharon's evacuation plan does not have full legitimacy and requires the further imprimatur of the people. But, says Olmert, Israel's trade and industry minister, all the prime minister needs in accordance with the Israeli system is approval from the Cabinet and the Knesset -- and he is assured of the support of both.
Sharon says the referendum proposal is a transparent attempt by his opponents to gain time. His confidants go further. They say the settlers are bandying the referendum idea about, knowing full well that Sharon will reject it, in an effort to delegitimize the evacuation process and legitimize the use of force against it.
Tough right-wing statements and actions suggest swelling undercurrents of violence. Netanyahu's father, Bentzion, along with other family members, recently signed a petition describing the planned evacuation as a "crime against humanity" and urging soldiers "to listen to the voice of their national and human conscience" and refuse to carry out evacuation orders.
Netanyahu's brother-in-law, Hagi Ben Artzi, a settler, noted that "only the Nazis had transferred Jews" and intimated that there would be violent and even armed opposition.
Baruch Marzel, a former member of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane's now-banned Kach organization, has set up a new radical right-wing group called the Jewish National Front, dedicated to resisting evacuation.
Another former Kach member, Rabbi Yosef Dahan, has said that, if asked, he would be willing to carry out a "Pulsa da-Nura," a religious curse condemning Sharon to death. Extremists performed Pulsa da-Nura ceremonies against Rabin in the weeks leading up to his assassination in 1995.
In this volatile situation, settler leaders admit to playing a canny double game. On the one hand, they are trying to win the hearts and minds of mainstream Israelis just in case there is a referendum. To this end, they are consciously toning down settler rhetoric.
At a huge settler demonstration in Jerusalem Sept. 12, they took pains to silence extremists and take down banners that went too far. But at the same time, they admit to turning the flames of incipient violence "on and off" and allowing the threat of civil war to hover uneasily in the air.
As the showdown over evacuation approaches, both the prime minister and the settlers are acting within brittle parameters of legitimacy and perceived legitimacy and resorting to on-the-edge brinkmanship. In both cases, it is a dangerous game that could get out of hand.