Likuds Gaza rejection may actually speed withdrawal

jerusalem | 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.

At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington D.C., Representatives Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the Republican House leader, and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, spoke jointly to promote the plan.

“I am hopeful that Congress, in a bipartisan way, can express support for principles the president articulated during Prime Minister Sharon’s recent visit to the United States,” Hoyer said. “I look forward to working with Tom DeLay to accomplish that end.”

Moments later, DeLay affirmed, “I can announce today that we have already begun working with Steny to properly affirm Congress’ absolute support for these principles.”

On Saturday, 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 say 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.

Opponents of withdrawal seem to 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.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.