Can Sharon Recoup His Losses on the Referendum Gamble?

On Sunday, May 2, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon lost his party. A majority of the 200,000-strong Likud membership turned their backs on him. Only 40 percent bothered to take part in the party referendum on his unilateral disengagement plan and its concomitant pledge to uproot 7,500 Jews from their Gaza Strip homes and four West Bank locations. Even among that minority, his plan was defeated by a crushing two-digit proportion.
His closest crony, deputy premier, minister of commerce and industry Ehud Olmert, who hired a bus to go round the balloting booths, traveled alone. No one except for a couple of reporters wanted to ride with him. If Sharon and Olmert honestly expect to get up the morning after and carry on the fight for their plan as though has changed, they had better think again. Sharon has not only lost face in a small section of the public; he has been stripped of at least six attributes that are essential for continuing his drive:
1. Allies. Sharon, like any political leader who ventures and loses, will soon begin to feel the chill of loneliness creeping up on him. Except for the unpopular Olmert, his own Likud ministers – Binyamin Netanyahu, treasury, Limor Livnat, education, foreign minister Silvan Shalom, Tsahi Hanegbi, police, Avraham Katz, agriculture and Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Speaker – were against his disengagement plan from the start. He had hoped to use the yeas of party’s rank and file to whip them into line behind him. By losing the referendum, he forfeited his cabinet majority for pushing his plan through.
2. Outside support. For the Palestinians he intended the Gaza evacuation as a concession to stimulate the revival of the peace process and win international approval. Instead, the Palestinian swore to sabotage the plan – they badly dented its chances by the savage murder of four small Israel girls and their pregnant mother in the Gaza Strip on voting day. The US President George W. Bush’s warm endorsement was not a powerful enough to lure for international backers or the Likud voter.
3. When more than half of the prime minister’s own Likud defected, the Knesset majority he counted on melted away too. Opposition Labor leaders and middle-of-the-road Change ministers suddenly forgot their promised parliamentary safety net and began eying new friends in preference to a lame duck in a fragmented party.
4. By placing his reputation on the line (Likud’s last election slogan was: “Sharon can do it!), he gambled and lost his place of honor as the quintessential leader and spokesman of the right wing and settlement movement, who now accuse him of betrayal and of eagerness to reward terrorists.
5. Sharon cannot bank on a national referendum either should he choose to go round the politicians and defy his own party. The fable put about that 70 percent of the general public would welcome disengagement and be happy to dump the Gaza Strip settlers has very little foundation in fact. The prime minister has been riding an ebbing tide of credibility for some time, a trend reflected in national opinion polls conducted before Likud was consulted.
6. The military-intelligence establishment never came round to his thinking on the merits of unilateral disengagement, except for the defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who owes his job to Sharon’s personal support. Scarcely a senior officer can be found in the armed forces or intelligence who does not criticize Sharon’s plan as inept and unrealistic.
Sharon is left high and dry by the referendum to pick over six conceivable options: resignation – which he rejected without delay, calling a general election, devising an alternative to the rejected disengagement plan or revising it, calling a national referendum, forming a new political party and splitting Likud and, finally, joining two fellow septuagenarians who believe in his plan -Change leader Tommy Lapid and Labor leader Shimon Peres (who just turned 80) – in a “League of Elders” that would cut across party boundaries on the pretext of national unity.
None of those courses will cure Sharon’s fundamental shortcoming of being bereft of any sizeable following. As a general, he would have to start recruiting from scratch. The opposition is in not much better shape. Their parliamentarians are preparing to table legislation for dissolving the Knesset and calling a general election. Since all the parties are strapped for cash to support their campaigns, a snap election is unlikely to be called before the fall.
Meanwhile, Israeli politics faces a period of upheaval. Sharon will fight hard to restore his credibility. He is unlikely to make it to another election; the corruption scandals surrounding him have dried up his sources of funding and he has lost touch with the voter – and not just his own party’s grass roots. His weakened state will attract challengers intent on grabbing the top spot. Labor’s Shimon Peres is always a willing candidate; Lapid dreams of building his Change party into a large largest centrist grouping by poaching on both Labor and Likud with himself in place of Sharon; former prime minister Netanyahu will not miss the chance of climbing back into his old office at the head of a reunited Likud.
The ultra-religious Shas, another enemy Sharon tossed into the political wilderness, is back in the game. The day before the Likud referendum, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a veteran dove was reborn as a hawk and recommended a vote against the Sharon plan. The settlers and their winning campaign against Sharon have restored them too as an effective political force with abundant funds, energy and confidence.

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