Ladder up for Netanyahu

Ariel Sharon‘s revised and improved four-step disengagement outline was the prime minister’s last chance to climb down from the precarious branch on which he has been perched since his own Likud party voted down his original pullout proposal on May 2 by a margin of 60 to 40 percent. By late Thursday, May 27, he looked as though he would be denied cabinet approval for even that amended plan when it is submitted on Sunday, May 30. So he tried trimming it down further, abandoning the complete Gaza evacuation concept and offering to limit removals to three settlements, Rafiah Yam, Netzarim and Morag. He waived government approval and said he would be satisfied with a noncommittal “the government notes…” instead.

The four-step plan which he has not abandoned yet calls in stage one for the evacuation of three Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip – Netzarim, Kfar Darom (later amended to Rafiah Yam) and Morag; four West Bank settlements, Ganim, Kadim, Sa Nur and Homesh, in the next stage; all the remaining settlements in Gush Katif, in the third phase, to be followed in the fourth and final stage by the settlements in the northern Gaza Strip – Alei Sinai, Dugit and Nissanit.

The pullouts are to completed by the end of 2005.

His back to the wall, outmaneuvered by his party and ministers, Sharon has been left with very little leeway to pursue any of his plans. He will be lucky to hold onto office. As a last resort, he reached out to his predecessor and current finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at the price of giving him a leg-up back to the prime minister’s office.

How did Sharon get into this fix?

His defeat by the Likud referendum was not just a passing victory for a hardcore right-wing that supposedly commandeered the party. It represented a far broader groundswell of totally disenchanted Israeli opinion that refuses to hear of yet another “diplomatic solution” with pretensions to leading the country out of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to peace. This course led to Israel’s three most traumatic debacles of the past decade: the failed 1993 Oslo accords, the May 2000 troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the Palestinian suicide terrorist war designed to bring Israel to its knees.

Claims by Oslo architect Shimon Peres’s Labor Party and the Israeli Left that 70 percent of the general public backs a pullout from the Gaza Strip and West Bank while the war with the Palestinians rages have never been substantiated. If a national ballot were held today on the issue, the outcome would closely reflect the Likud vote. Sharon is out in the front line of this harsh political reality and is being badly burned. No wonder Peres, Shinui leader Yosef Lapid and vice premier Ehud Olmert are so keen on keeping him in power. They know they wouldn’t stand a chance on their own if they had to put their concessionist views to the test of the ballot box.

In any case, the “plan” Sharon has been selling never really addressed any of the practicalities of a unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. It was defeated as much by its hollowness as by its implied concessions to the enemy under fire. Yet even now, Sharon is clinging to the same slippery slope in an apparently desperate attempt to save the little prestige he has left as a political leader and prime minister. The revised edition of his disengagement plan is as much a non-plan as the original.

Disengagement vanishes in the blue yonder

Netanyahu has seized the advantage. Leaving his fellow Likud opponents of the plan – education minister Limor Livnat, foreign minister Silvan Shalom and agriculture minister Yisrael Katz – in the dust, the finance minister’s followers quietly took control of 60 percent of the party’s institutions, winning a majority for his election when the leadership comes to the vote. Sharon is paying the price of alienating the Likud party institutions for the past three years. He is now powerless to stop his power base from collapsing under him.

He therefore bowed to Netanyahu’s demand to submit the evacuation plan piecemeal to the cabinet, starting next Sunday with its first stage. Sharon had two main reasons for accepting the slowdown:

  1. Timetables put out by the prime minister’s men are incorrect and unrealistic. Sharon personally promised President George W. Bush not to push forward with any boat-rocking disengagement steps until after the November 4 US election and inauguration day in January 2005. That means Sharon – assuming he is still in power – will have to wait seven months before implementing stage one of his plan. The amended version places a nine-month pause between the first and second stages, during which Israel will appraise the conditions to see if they warrant moving ahead. At the very least, the disengagement exercise will be spread over 27 months – starting in mid-2005 and ending in late 2007.

  2. Netanyahu and his strategists judged that they would not lose much by going along with the first stage of the plan. A straight vote against it would kill the plan cold and probably bring Sharon down. Overly abrupt action, they decided, would turn the public against him and lay him open to charges of engineering a coup. The finance minister sees himself installed in an orderly transfer of power. To achieve this, he will make sure Sharon stays in office for another five to six months.

Why then would the usually savvy Sharon agree to a game plan that strengthens his most powerful Likud rival?

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political sources in Jerusalem believe it’s because Sharon believes he will buy himself another year in the prime minister’s office. He is betting that Netanyahu will self-destruct by committing some bad blunder during this time. The prime minister will then serve out his full term until the 2007 general election.

Meanwhile, our Palestinian sources report Egypt is emerging as the great champion of the amended disengagement plan. Egyptian intelligence minister general Omar Suleiman assured Yasser Arafat in Ramallah this week that he could get Sharon to carry out a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip – for a price. Arafat must transfer command and control of the Palestinian security forces, lock, stock and barrel, to prime minister Ahmed Quriea (Abu Ala). Sharon and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak would guarantee Arafat free passage from his battered Muqata headquarters in the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, where he would be free to reestablish the Palestinian Authority’s central administration.

Arafat wasn’t buying.. He chose not to respond to an offer he must have seen as a trap, perhaps thinking to himself: “What in the world would I do in Gaza if I no longer had control of the security forces?”

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