Withdrawal pangs

jerusalem (jta) | 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.

In spite of the conflict in Rafah, Israel appears to be negotiating with the Palestinians over a potential Gaza withdrawal. With Egypt as intermediary, Sharon has said he may be willing to coordinate any withdrawal with Palestinian security forces.

At home, a rebellion is gathering steam in Sharon’s Likud Party and other members of his cabinet.

“On television I saw an old woman rummaging through the ruins of her home in Rafah, searching for her medication, and she reminded me of my grandmother who was expelled from her home during the Holocaust,” Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who fled the Nazi invasion of his native Hungary as a boy, was quoted as telling Cabinet colleagues Sunday, May 23.

Lapid said, “Ultimately they will kick us out of the United Nations, they will prosecute the responsible parties at The Hague and no one will want to talk with us.”

After being rebuked by Sharon, Lapid, who is from the Shinui Party, clarified his remarks.

“To remove any doubt, I do not meant to liken us to the Germans or the Holocaust,” he told Israel Radio. “But we must remember that we are a humane people, we are Jews and we have commitment beyond just our security needs.’

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.

“I have been at the front for 60 years,” Sharon told a gathering of veteran soldiers Sunday, May 23. “You know me and you know that when I fight for something that is right and just, I do it.”

Earlier in the day, a resolute Sharon told the army’s top brass that he “didn’t want their opinions of his plan” — just their input on how best to carry it out.

Sharon says he will closely coordinate the withdrawal plan with the United States, Egypt, Jordan and Europe. This, he hopes, will help create a fount of international goodwill toward Israel.

Meanwhile, the prime minister’s aides predict that the new political dynamic will marginalize Sharon’s hawkish critics in the Likud.

But it’s not that simple.

International good will will depend on successful implementation of a complicated withdrawal plan that includes evacuating Jewish settlements. 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 long has argued that if Israel withdraws from Gaza, it would need to widen a strip along the Gaza-Egypt boundary, known as the Philadelphia 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 Philadelphia 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 Philadelphia route as much as they had planned, strengthening arguments against maintaining any Israeli military presence in Gaza.

The Shinui Party’s Avraham Poraz made that point to Sharon in a meeting last week. Israel, he said, should forget about trying to seal the border and prevent arms smuggling, but should create a deterrent balance like the one with Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border: If Palestinians shell Israeli civilians after a withdrawal from Gaza, Israel can hit back tenfold without breaching international norms, Poraz said.

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 Philadelphia 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 Sunday, May 2, referendum is that, under the new plan, withdrawal will be implemented in stages.

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.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.


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