May 27, 2004
Sharon Battles for Pullout Plan
Facing a crucial Cabinet vote next week on his amended disengagement plan from the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon is facing as much pressure as he ever did as a general on the battlefield.
On the international front, the Israeli prime minister has weathered scathing criticism of Israel's latest military operation in the Gaza Strip, which left more than 40 Palestinians dead and dozens of homes demolished in the Rafah refugee camp.
At home, a rebellion is gathering steam in Sharon's Likud Party by opponents of the planned withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
But Sharon is determined to press on. Just as his crossing of the Suez Canal turned the tables in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sharon hopes that Cabinet passage of his amended disengagement plan will disarm critics in his party and improve Israel's tarnished international standing.
The Israeli army's top brass hasn't been fully behind the plan, the confrontation with the Likud rebels could split the party and threaten Sharon's political career, and Sharon first will have to get the plan approved in the Cabinet, where opinion is split.
The decision last week to send Israeli troops into Rafah, in southern Gaza, came after reports that Iranian arms, including Katyusha rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons, were about to be smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels leading from Egypt.
The army leadership has long argued that if Israel withdraws from Gaza, it would need to widen a strip along the Gaza-Egypt boundary, known as the Philadelphi route, and maintain a presence there to prevent future arms smuggling.
But international condemnation of Israel's destruction of Palestinian homes to find smuggling tunnels and widen the Philadelphi route, thereby making future tunneling virtually impossible, led to a revision of the military's thinking.
The generals realized they wouldn't be able to widen the Philadelphi route as much as they had planned, strengthening arguments against maintaining any Israeli military presence in Gaza.
Ironically, despite the international criticism and the Israeli and Palestinian casualties in Gaza, Sharon found himself in a political win-win situation.
If the army succeeded in establishing an efficient hold over the Philadelphi route, the army leadership then could back Sharon's disengagement plan. If it failed to do so because of international and domestic pressure, it would have to rethink its overall Gaza strategy in line with Sharon's longer-term evacuation plans.
The Likud challenge to Sharon is more serious. The main difference between Sharon's amended plan and the one Likud voters rejected in a May 2 referendum is that, under the new plan, withdrawal will be implemented in stages.
The idea is to evacuate the more vulnerable settlements first, proceeding from one stage to the next only after the government is satisfied that the previous stage has created a more favorable security situation.
Sharon's Likud opponents say that's only a cosmetic change from the original withdrawal plan, which party members resoundingly rejected. In proceeding, Sharon is in breach of party discipline, they argue.
This group claims to have the support of more than half of the 40 Likud legislators in the Knesset, and the group clearly poses a serious threat to Sharon.
The first major battle will come next Sunday, when Sharon submits his amended plan to the Cabinet. Of the 23 ministers, 11 support the new plan, 11 are opposed and one, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, is the potential tiebreaker.
One way or another, a determined Sharon likely will push at least part of his plan through the Cabinet. Then he will have a party rebellion on his hands, the size of which will depend on whether leading figures like Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu join it.
Sharon's hopes of political survival could depend on whether he is able to forge a political alliance with Labor. Labor could join with Likud in a coalition that pushes the disengagement plan through the Knesset. Sharon also could form an electoral alliance with Labor and Shinui by running on a disengagement ticket in new elections that would be seen as a sort of national referendum on withdrawal.
But there's yet another wrinkle for the beleaguered prime minister: Aside from all the political maneuvering, Sharon must survive a legal battle against corruption charges.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz is due to rule within the next few weeks on whether or not to indict Sharon. An indictment almost certainly would end his career, while a decision not to indict would enable Sharon to survive yet another day -- and face the political battle of his life.