More than a policy will be riding on the historic vote in the Israeli parliament on Tuesday, October 26. Prime minister Ariel Sharon will be gambling on a single throw for his future, his Likud party’s hold on power, the Israeli Defense Forces’ cohesion and its unique and unquestioned place in all walks of Israeli society as well as on key elements of Israel’s national security and deterrence. For the first time since the 1979 peace treaty was signed with Egypt, a bitterly divided Knesset will be asked to approve the uprooting of Israeli settlements – more than 20 in the strategic Gaza Strip and four out of the 120 on West Bank – unilaterally and gratis after four years of a relentless Palestinian war of terror. The request will come from a man who was long the settlement movement’s most ardent champion.
Even if his disengagement plan wins a majority in the 120-member Knesset, it will be against the will of a large section of his own Likud and with the votes of opposition parties who support him in nothing else. His government is unlikely therefore to survive for long and an early election next March or May unavoidable.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's political sources say the prime minister is himself liable to be out of a job before Israelis go to the polls.
On the way to the watershed vote, Sharon has fallen out with a large and powerful segment of his own Likud, leaving it fragmented and humiliated by his refusal to consider its members’ views. He is therefore likely to find himself jettisoned as prime ministerial candidate in favor of his predecessor and perennial rival, finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The result predicted by many Likud lawmakers is a split and weakened party with Sharon breaking away at the head of 15 to 17 loyalist Knesset members to form a new centrist faction and the 20 to 22 members who defied him forming a large right-of-center bloc. The harder Sharon pushes for his plan, the larger the Likud opposition camp grows.
Crisis on both sides of Knesset
On the other side of the House, the 82-year old opposition Labor leader Shimon Peres is in no better shape. Party rivals are more than eager to put the Nobel Peace Prize laureate out to pasture, except that unlike Likud they cannot pick an agreed successor. Former prime minister Ehud Barak has staked a claim, but most top Laborites are put off by his arrogance, a fault that cost him much support when he held office. The latest opinion polls do not encourage Labor, long the dominant force in Israeli politics, to seek salvation in a general election. Primaries promise to be a war of attrition. And, notwithstanding the disarray in Likud, Labor may find itself scrabbling for a two-digit faction in the next Knesset, less than half of its current 21 members.
There are no signs therefore that Israeli politics are coming out of the leadership and security crisis in which they have been locked since the Palestinians declared war in September 2000.
And the current crisis in the ruling party may have been in vain. It is hard to see Sharon getting very far in his campaign to break up the Gaza settlements by lures of compensation or threats of eviction, which threaten to divide the army. His failure will give his long-time nemesis, Yasser Arafat, the satisfaction of having brought down his fourth Israeli prime minister since he signed the 1993 Oslo Peace Framework Accords.
Peres, who became prime minister after the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was mowed down at the ballot box by a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that blew up bus after bus in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Peres’ successor, Netanyahu, lost the 1999 election to Barak, under strong personal attacks but his concessions to the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in Hebron and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem further clouded his chances at the poll. Then Barak was forced to step down and easily crushed by Sharon in the 2001 election after the Camp David “peace conference” fiasco with Arafat, initiated by President Bill Clinton talks and his failure to stem escalating Palestinian terrorist violence – notably the blitz against Jerusalem’s Gilo district.
Arafat collects the pieces
Now, Arafat has drawn a bead on Sharon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources report that Arafat has vowed to bring down any Israeli prime minister who does not accept the political and military terms he dictates for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian economy and Authority may be a wreck, but Arafat’s power is intact. A recent example: Of the nine Israeli Arab legislators in the Israeli parliament, six have committed to vote against Sharon’s disengagement plan. They admit that any Israeli pullout from “occupied Palestinian land” ought to be welcomed. For that reason, Egypt invited all Israeli Arab lawmakers to Cairo last week and gained their promise to vote in favor. Cairo informed Washington of their undertaking.
It was short-lived. Our sources report that on their return home, the Israeli Arab lawmakers were ordered by Arafat to defeat the disengagement scheme – either by raising their hands against it or staying away from the vote. They were forbidden to extend any form of Arab recognition to a plan scripted by the Israeli prime minister.
The Palestinian leader thus killed two birds with one stone: He damaged Cairo’s credibility with Washington and brought Sharon a step closer to his downfall.