When President George W. Bush stood alongside Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in the White House on April 14 and praised his disengagement blueprint and plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip as “an historic step”, he did not appreciate that the Israeli leader’s star was falling fast. And when, quoting Sharon, Bush said “‘We are pulling out’, the whole world should have said, ‘Thank you, Ariel; now we have a chance to begin the construction of a peaceful Palestinian state,'” he was not to know that the Israeli prime minister’s hopes and plans teetered on the brink of rejection.
Neither was word of this dim prospect carried to the White House by the three senior US officials shuttling between Jerusalem and Washington to study the details of Sharon’s plan – National Security Council deputy chief, Stephen Hadley, Head of the NSC Middle East Desk, Elliot Abrams, and Undersecretary of State William Burns.
In fact, they reported that his standing was solid and unshakeable. When he presented his plan to the US President, Sharon’s advisers boasted it would breeze through the May 2 Likud party referendum by 75:25,
Thursday, April 29 came the rude awakening, when it was discovered that President Bush’s warm endorsement had not influenced Likud voters. In the space of a week, a whopping 16 percent of the 200,000 members changed sides, tipping the scale into a majority vote against the Sharon plan with little chance of talking them round in the four days left until polling. The solid support had melted down into a solid defeat.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political analysts list eight factors that evolved over a period and came together at the end of April 2004 to cause Sharon’s vertiginous fall:
In his three and a half years in office, prime minister Sharon has been faulted for not delivering on his key election pledge, security. He is now perceived as placing political considerations ahead of the war to the finish against Palestinian terror. An example of what is seen as his dereliction is his government’s foot-dragging on the security fence along the West Bank only one-quarter of which is so far standing.
Sharon’s political steps on the Palestinian question were taken in the teeth of majority opinion in his Likud party. He shrugged off Likud resolutions when he supported Bush’s advocacy of a Palestinian state with a contemptuous: Say what you like, I will do as I see fit. He made it clear he did not need his party behind him to go forward as he could count on other parties, Change in the government coalition, and the Labor opposition, to carry his policies through or even reshuffle his government. Slowly, his Likud critics began organizing.
Unemployment figures have mounted relentlessly since he took office, reaching an unprecedented peak of more than 11 percent, coupled with deep recession. The policy he and finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu have led has favored the affluent and expanded the impoverished classes without strengthening the middle class. Most Likud rank and file belongs to the latter two groups.
The interminable corruption investigations against the prime minister and his two sons, one of whom Omri Sharon is a Likud Knesset member and one of his closest advisers. This week, the attorney general indicated that he has not found enough evidence to substantiate the state prosecutor’s recommendation to indict the prime minister. But the allegations linger and leave a bad taste.
Sharon’s presentation of his disengagement scheme has been an exercise in obfuscation. Even its champions are short of lucid, coherent arguments to defend it. The only clear element sticking in the national mind is that the Likud prime minister has determined to uproot Jews from Gaza Strip settlements in the Gaza Strip, thus giving up a key security element of the Israeli-Egyptian frontier, in return for nothing tangible.
The prime minister’s choice of close advisers and political allies has seriously reduced his support base. The minister closest to him, the deputy premier and minister of industry and trade Ehud Olmert, has seized on the disengagement plan as a vehicle for capturing the Likud leadership and candidacy as next prime minister. Olmert has never been a popular figure in the party. In the last primaries, he came in at 37th from the top. Most Likud ministers and their party followings understand that by carrying the disengagement plan they will promote Olmert’s chances of advancing to the top jumping-off point to succeed Sharon. They have therefore all joined forces in a show of unity to defeat both plan and Olmert’s pretensions.
Sharon and the leaders of the Bush administration underestimated the political, organizational and financial resources commanded by quarter of a million Israeli settlers on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The prime minister discovered too late that they outstrip his own resources by far.
Sharon’s old benefactors have distanced themselves from his current campaign fearing to be tainted by the corruption scandals hanging over his head. So his campaign is badly underfunded.
Noting Sharon’s approaching debacle, the White House Thursday extended a lifeline in the form of a statement from the National Security Council spokesman that the US president stands 100 percent behind his pledges to Sharon. This gesture was seriously offset by the spokesman’s refusal to disclose the contents of the letter Bush will hand Jordan’s King Abdullah during his May 6 visit to the White House to balance the letter received by Sharon.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, Secretary of State Colin Powell has been busy with European Union and Egyptian officials drafting a policy that will offset some of the damage he believes has emanated from the president’s warm endorsement of the Sharon plan, his willingness to concede that population changes have changed geographical realities and his statement that Palestinian refugees should be resettled in a Palestinian state.
Powell advises treating Israel’s withdrawal and disengagement as stage one of the Middle East road map. Upon its completion, Washington will announce the broaching of the next stage without delay, namely, the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders that enclose the Gaza Strip and 42 percent of the West Bank.
At that point, negotiations will take place for the first time on the remaining 58 percent including Jerusalem.
The Palestinian state will be recognized by the United States and European Union upon fulfillment of three conditions:
A. Armed hostilities of all kinds must cease. B. All armed Palestinian organizations must disband except for a unified Palestinian security force. C. A joint US-EU economic reconstruction plan set in motion.
If the president endorses the Powell initiative, it will mean that his support is limited to Sharon’s disengagement plan as an interim measure, without any commitment to Israel’s case in the negotiations to determine the final borders dividing Israel and the Palestinian state.
Likud members are fully aware of this limitation and disturbed by it.
Sharon’s letter to Bush also contains commitments to refrain from annexing territory, creating new settlements, expanding existing ones and treating the security barrier as a future permanent frontier.
Secretary Powell has set in motion the steps that will start rolling as soon as voting ends in Likud. The Egyptian intelligence minister General Omar Suleiman and Palestinian information minister and Arafat’s confidant Nabil Shaat have been invited to Washington next week immediately after the May 4 Quartet meeting and King Abdullah’s visit.