Israel’s political establishment is still reeling from Binyamin Netanyahu‘s surprise resignation as finance minister Sunday, August 7. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political sources report that he carried out a three-point tactic he had been discussing secretly with his in-group for the last eight months: he quit the Sharon government, launched a fierce attack on its disengagement-evacuation program and challenged prime minister Ariel Sharon for the leadership of the ruling Likud party.
In laying down the gauntlet, he radiated his certainty of displacing Sharon as prime minister in the next general election.
Netanyahu’s high confidence appears to be grounded in a series of recent public opinion polls which indicate that 45% of Israelis would prefer Sharon to retire and not bid for a third term after he finishes evacuating some 10,000 Israelis from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. They also give him a strong lead in Likud (49% to 39%, in some polls: 41% to 27%, in others) as the party’s preferred prime ministerial candidate.
Sharon comes out on top in one eventuality: if Likud splits, he comes out 5% ahead of Netanyahu – 24% to 19%. But the former prime minister makes no secret of the fact that opinion polls are not the only grounds for his decision to challenge Sharon, but his belief that the pull-back, while strongly backed by US president George W. Bush, will degenerate into an unholy mess.
According to the ex-finance minister’s reckoning, the operation will drag on from hitch to disaster, from its inception next Monday, August 15 – when soldiers knock on the doors of holdouts and warn them they have 48 hours to leave voluntarily – through September and October.
Netanyahu has warned Sharon the operation could bog down in one of five disastrous scenarios:
An operation with more foes than friends
1. It could be forced to a standstill by fierce resistance from the evacuees, possibly leading to bloodshed. This would break the morale of the evacuating forces, which is already pretty low given their unenviable task of throwing families out of their homes and destroying their livelihoods. Some of the army units mobilized for the evictions are seething over what they regard as a political mission instead of their normal, security-related duties.
2. A Jewish terrorist attack against Israeli Arabs, Palestinians or Muslims would also threaten the pullback’s completion. This hazard was demonstrated on August 4, when a lone Israeli army deserter shot dead four Arabs on a bus in the northern Israeli town of Shfaram. That one incident forced the police to draw off strength concentrated in the south to block the roads to the Gaza Strip against protest marchers, and call on the army for helicopters to fly police contingents to take charge of the crime scene.
3. A mega-terror attack in a town center staged by Palestinian terrorists, the Lebanese Hizballah or al Qaeda. A high casualty toll would automatically halt the pullback.
4. Every Israeli officer serving in the evacuation units in the Gaza Strip knows about Hamas’ pledge to refrain from interrupting the withdrawal operation until the civilians are gone. But they also know that, once that stage is over, Hamas reserves a free hand to attack Israeli troops, 20,000 of whom will be left behind until the territory’s handover. Neither will the terrorist group be bound to refrain from striking the towns and villages of the southern Israeli Negev adjacent to Gaza.
One senior IDF officer engaged in preparing the troops for the operation told DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources: “There are plenty of indications that Hamas is looking for a major fight with the IDF.”
If this happens, Israel will launch ground and air forces for a large scale offensive to break the back of Hamas strength and is military strongholds in the Gaza Strip.
“But the troops know they are running into extreme danger,” the officer went on to explain: “However thoroughly they are prepared to defend themselves, a large concentration of Israel strength in one place is bound to be vulnerable to missile attack and casualties are unavoidable.”
Dangerous terrorists plan to converge on the Gaza Strip
Furthermore, there is no knowing how long they will be required to remain in range of hostile Palestinian fire to guard the vacant properties until they are handed to a competent Palestinian authority, whoever that may be at the time. The prospect is bleak, because Hamas is determined to challenge that authority by force of arms, so that even after the civilians are evicted, the pull-out may be delayed indefinitely.
5. The two rivals, Netanyahu and Sharon, both appreciate that even if the operation goes through as smooth as silk, that will not be the end of Gaza Strip-related trouble for Israel. The most dangerous terrorist elements in the Middle East have booked bases in the territory alongside the Palestinian men of violence.
The Lebanese Hizballah, for instance.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and counter-terror sources report discussions taking place on a possible Hizballah flight to Gaza to escape US pressure to dissolve its units and disarm. Hamas would willingly connive in the transportation by sea of its Lebanese ally’s men and weapons systems to Gaza port. Since Israel has not stipulated the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip as the condition for its withdrawal, it has no grounds for objections, unless the government in Jerusalem is prepared to endanger its diplomatic dialogue with the Palestinians.
This scenario is not pure hypothesis; when the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas visited Beirut July 22-23, his discussions with senior Lebanese officials turned on the transfer of Palestinian militias to Gaza to elude US demands to disarm them. Both sides understood that this solution would serve very well for the Hizballah too.
Thursday, August 12, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report a senior member of the Fatah central committee, Abbas Zaki, in south Lebanon on a mission from Abu Mazen to hold talks with Hizballah leaders. The day after Washington demanded that the new Lebanese government deploy its army on the Israeli border in place of Hizballah, Zaki was closeted with Hizballah’s south Lebanon commander Sheikh Nabil Qaouk.
Solid backing in New York and Tel Aviv
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Jerusalem sources affirm that Netanyahu’s resignation, if not its exact timing, did not come entirely out of the blue. He is known to be backed by certain political circles in the US and Israeli capitals, as well as financial interests in New York and Tel Aviv. They were certainly privy to the move, anxious for a standby figure ready to take over should Sharon be forced to step down by any of the disastrous scenarios envisaged for the pull-back process.
The Israeli government is not as solid as it seems. Sharon’s coalition majority depends on the Labor party which is led by the octogenarian Shimon Peres and too riddled with bitter internal feuds to pick his successor. Labor’s standing with the general electorate is on the wane. Sharon may be counting on Labor’s support to keep his disengagement program afloat in the Knesset, but in any unforeseen crisis, it would be a broken reed.