For Sharon, One Hurdle Overcome, Higher Ones Ahead

The bill grading compensation rates for evacuated Jewish settlers scraped past its first hurdle at the cabinet meeting Sunday, October 24, by a vote of 13 ministers to 6. That was the prologue to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. But at least five of the ayes were halfhearted, cast by ministers fearful of burning their bridges into government by throwing in their lot with the Likud anti-evacuation rebels.
The split in Likud is deepening as the pro-Sharon and anti-evacuation camps pull hard against each other in the 48 hours running up to the Knesset vote Tuesday, October 26, on the main body of the plan to remove 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and eliminate four West Bank settlements. The prime minister is counting on 65-66 supporters in the 120-member house. A large portion will come from the left-of-center opposition that will plug the hole left by the 17+ rebels of his 40-member Likud and their right-of-center supporters.
But even if a Knesset majority favors disengagement, the Likud rebels will fight on. They are preparing steps to topple the Sharon government complete with his disengagement scheme by defeating the 2005 national budget when it comes before parliament in the next week or two.
The danger is real. Before the rebellion, the Sharon government rested on a parliamentary minority of 58, which the rebels threaten to shrink. The opposition Labor and Yahad are committed to supporting disengagement. But their safety net is not large enough to spread out under the budget. The 21-member Labor is divided on many of its clauses while Yahad (6) is flat opposed.
On the right side of the spectrum, the call by the spiritual leader of ultra-religious Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to oppose disengagement as a danger to national security, is eroding support even outside the 11-member Shas party.
After Sunday’s cabinet vote, pro-settlement social welfare minister Zvulun Orlev of the National Religious Party buttonholed three likeminded Likud cabinet members – finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, education minister Limor Livnat and foreign minister Silvan Shalom. He urged them to climb down off the fence and accept his formula which he said gave the government a chance to last full term until 2006. Their would promise their votes for the disengagement motion (minus the removal of settlements, which will be put to the vote separately) at the crucial Tuesday show of hands, in return for the prime minister’s pledge of an immediate national referendum on the entire disengagement-evacuation package.
Orlev may hope the Likud trio will put his suggestion before Sharon as an ultimatum on the lines of: if you don’t accept a referendum we’ll cast our votes against disengagement and wipe out your majority.
Even if the Sharon government weathers the disengagement storm, it will continue to skate on extremely thin ice. The irreparably fissured Likud poses an invitation to opposition parties to wait at every corner for a chance to bring the ruling administration down.
Sharon is further vexed by the circumstances under which he first came up with his plan to throw the Gaza Strip overboard sliding out from under him – mostly as a result of Yasser Arafat’s machinations. If Arafat is able to exploit his health crisis and escape his three-year confinement in Ramallah to a supportive overseas haven, he will bequeath Israel a territory in shambles and a dysfunctional Palestinian Authority and security mechanism. The Palestinian leader has gone to great pains to transform the Gaza Strip into a furious hotbed for terrorists and warring gang leaders.
Two unpublicized developments demonstrate the hopeless situation in the territory:
1. Communications have broken down completely among the chiefs of Palestinian security and intelligence services, Hamas, Jihad Islami and the Popular Resistance Committees. They are all in hiding in well protected havens or working underground – in fear of one another. Amin al Hindi, head of Palestinian General Intelligence, for instance, sleeps, eats and lives in his closely guarded office at intelligence headquarters for fear of assassins. Mussa Arafat, commander of Palestinian armed forces in the Gaza Strip and chief of military intelligence, never moves across the shortest distances without a 20-vehicle convoy and 100 armed bodyguards, who clear the streets of cars and pedestrians ahead of his passage.
According to debkafile‘s intelligence sources, the Strip’s heads of services and gangland chiefs are preparing for all-out war against their rivals. A wholesale war of reciprocal liquidations is around the corner and could rage for months. Israel and its army would find themselves in an impossible situation. All the groups and gangs are deeply involved in the machinery of terror against Israel and will resort to attacks, including Qassam missile barrages, to score points in their feuds.
“If that happens,” an Israeli security official asks, “what can Israel do? Who is there to punish?”
The preferred arena for this brand of warfare is densely populated urban areas. This battleground was forced on Israeli forces when they fought terrorists in the Zeitun district of Gaza last May, in the subsequent Rafah operation to seal smuggling tunnels and, more recently, in the 16-day offensive in Jebalya, Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, to eradicate the Qassam missile launchers besetting Israeli towns. The terrorists lurked behind women and children. Much of the death and destruction suffered by the Palestinian population during these incursions was caused by the booby traps and mines which the terrorists packed closely in and around civilian homes and street corners. Yet the international outcry for the damage was directed against Israel – as it will be in the future, whether or not Israeli settlers and forces pull out.
2. In the last few weeks, Arafat’s headquarters has been a hive of activity to duplicate the mayhem of the Gaza Strip in West Bank towns. The disintegration of governance, law and order, and military and intelligence frameworks, well advanced in Gaza has begun in West Bank too. debkafile‘s Palestinian sources report that Arafat’s objective is to create a roiling, formless mass in place of organized authority, so that not only Israel, but the United States, Arab governments – primarily Egypt, and the Europeans have no one to engage on the Palestinian side in any diplomatic process.
The calculated breakdown of the Palestinian administration begat diplomatic impasse in two incidents in as many weeks.
Israeli and Palestinian security officers came together informally last week at a secret overseas venue. Under the American aegis, they were supposed to explore ways of synchronizing the various stages of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, including the orderly handover of Jewish residential locations and public utilities after the settlers’ evacuation. The Israelis presented an organized time table for the pullout; the Palestinian side had nothing coherent to contribute to make their side of the process go smoothly because, they admitted, no organized steps were possible in the current state of anarchy governing the Gaza Strip.
The meeting broke up without results.
While that rendezvous did at least take place, a second more high-profile encounter was called off altogether. Our sources reveal that a mini-conference organized by British premier Tony Blair was scheduled to open in London on the same day as Tuesday’s Knesset debate on disengagement. Israel and Palestinian Authority representatives were due to have gone to work on the security arrangements for putting in place in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s withdrawal. Late last week, the event was cancelled. British intelligence agents who had spent months in the territory informed 10 Downing Street there was no point; the Gazan Palestinians were incapable of putting together a proper delegation. Egypt, which has meanwhile backed out of any role in disengagement, also advised London to cancel. Officially, the conference was postponed until after the US presidential election on November 2 for better results.
Yasser Arafat, who initiated the lawlessness and abuse of Palestinian security and intelligence in the service of terrorism against Israel, is the only one with enough authority to put a stop to the distortions and the violence. Even he will not find it easy to put the genie back in the bottle at this late date. However successfully Sharon pushes his plans past the formidable opposition at home, he will come up hard against this reality when the time comes to pull out of the Gaza Strip. Under international law, Israel may not disengage unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. Its responsibilities as occupying power remain in force for as long as there is no legitimate recipient willing to take over. By making sure that no one will touch the unruly territory with a barge pole, Arafat has cut Sharon’s disengagement plan adrift. Whoever attempts to bring it to life will discover that the withdrawal of every last settler and military post is no panacea for Israel’s security woes at the hands of Palestinian terrorism. Israel will find it has no choice but to send the army back into the Gaza Strip again to hold in the violence and anarchy and prevent it from spilling across the border.

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