Tuesday, Oct. 26 may well go down as one of the more important, and bizarre, dates in the annals of Israeli politics.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a resounding victory in the Knesset for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, but the vote ended with his Likud Party in tatters and on the verge of splitting in two, with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the rebels.
The upshot is that although Sharon secured Knesset approval for his plan, which includes the dismantling of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, it's not at all clear whether he will have the political clout to see it through. Backed by the opposition Labor and Yahad parties and opposed by almost half of the Knesset faction of his own Likud Party, Sharon mustered 67 votes for his disengagement plan, with 45 against and seven abstentions.
Tuesday's vote does not authorize the actual removal of any settlements. The withdrawal is to be carried out in stages beginning next year, with Cabinet approval necessary before each move.
Still, Sharon had hoped that such a clear margin of victory in the Knesset would squelch demands for a national referendum on the withdrawal and open up new coalition-building possibilities.
But Netanyahu's move against Sharon means that his government could soon fall, and instead of moving ahead smoothly toward disengagement, Israel could find itself caught up in a stormy election.
For four hours before the vote, Netanyahu and three other leading Likud ministers -- Limor Livnat, Yisrael Katz and Danny Naveh -- closeted themselves in a Jerusalem hotel, working on a proposal to condition their support in Tuesday's Knesset vote on a commitment by Sharon to hold a national referendum on disengagement. Sharon rejected the demand out of hand, even refusing to meet the four ministers before the vote. He argues that referendum advocates simply are looking for a way to delay the disengagement plan indefinitely, and accused them of planning a putsch against him.
Things came to a head in the last hour before the vote. The National Religious Party (NRP), which is part of Sharon's government but which opposes disengagement, served the prime minister with an ultimatum: Hold a referendum or else. NRP Cabinet minister Zevulun Orlev said the party had received rabbinical approval to remain in Sharon's coalition until the end of its term in November 2006, even if the referendum goes against them. But if Sharon refuses to hold a referendum, Orlev warned, the party will leave the coalition within two weeks.
Then, immediately after the vote, Netanyahu dropped his bombshell: Unless Sharon agrees within 14 days to hold a referendum, he, Livnat, Katz and Naveh will leave the coalition as well.
What that means is that if Sharon doesn't buckle -- and so far there are no signs that he will -- the Likud will split in two, with Netanyahu and Sharon on opposing sides.
Sharon finds himself left with three possible choices: Build a new coalition or parliamentary pact with Labor and the left; agree to hold a referendum; or push for early elections. None of the choices is easy. To get a majority coalition with Labor and the left, Sharon would need the support of at least 17 of Likud's 40 legislators -- and it's not clear he can count on that many.
Agreeing to hold a referendum would be a monumental reversal and would leave Sharon severely weakened. And early elections would be a major gamble that he well might lose.
Sharon is unlikely to agree to the referendum demand. His most likely game plan will be to try to formalize the support of Labor and the left and keep going as prime minister as long as he can, betting that his opponents in the Likud and parties further to the right won't force elections because they, too, fear losing their Knesset seats.
In case it does come to an election with a split Likud, Sharon may try to take his portion of the party into an electoral alliance with Labor and the centrist Shinui Party. Advocates of this potential scenario -- called the "Big Bang" of Israeli politics -- argue that it would create a centrist alignment more accurately reflecting the will of the Israeli electorate than does the current political arrangement.
The game plan of Netanyahu, a former prime minister himself, likely will be to force Sharon into an election, hoping to depose him as Likud leader in the run up. Then, running at the head of the Likud, Netanyahu would hope to defeat any centrist alliance and win power as the head of a right-leaning government.
What actually happens in the showdown between Sharon and Netanyahu will depend initially on how many Likud legislators each of them is able to control. The more that are loyal to Netanyahu, the quicker the election scenario is likely to come about.
In his speech presenting his plan to the Knesset on Monday, Sharon seemed to recognize that his own links with the right, once close, were over, and that his political future will depend on ties with the center-left. Uncharacteristically, Sharon lashed out at the settlers, accusing them of a deluded "messianism" that was hurting Israeli national interests. In an equally surprising departure, he made a point of expressing regret for Palestinian suffering.
But more than anything, journalists in the Knesset on Monday were struck by Sharon's determination. He told them he would not bring the disengagement plan to the Knesset again, and that Tuesday's approval was all he needed. He declared that he had no intention of resigning, holding a referendum or sparking new elections. And he said he was absolutely determined to carry out the disengagement plan to the letter.
Still, pundits are not convinced that Sharon will be able to pull it off. Writing in the Yediot Achronot newspaper, political analyst Shimon Shiffer maintained that "the general assessment among the politicians was that the evacuation of the settlements will not happen: Either because Sharon will have to go to early elections, or because Benjamin Netanyahu will force Sharon to accept a referendum that will delay the evacuation indefinitely."
After his big Knesset success, Sharon will probably bank on a deal with Labor that keeps his coalition going. The next few weeks will tell whether this is a realistic proposition.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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