Sharon May Buy Knesset Majority by Saying Yes to Referendum

Notwithstanding his flat nyet to all comers proposing a national referendum to haul his disengagement plan out of its political impasse, Sharon has decided in his mind to go for it after all as a tool for manipulating the Knesset. This is reported by debkafile‘s political sources. He believes he can use this decision to enhance his chances of obtaining his real objective: a parliamentary mandate. Next Tuesday, October 26, after months of crippling controversy, lawmakers will vote on legislation to authorize the removal of Israeli troops and 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. Until now, this plan has been bogged down by pro-settlement opposition which argued that the plan had never been authorized by any elected body and violated the prime minister’s own election pledges. Hence, the demand for a referendum or a general election on the issue.
Sharon has not made his new decision public. However, once it was decided, there was no need for a showdown with pro-referendum President Moshe Katzav, when they met Monday, October 18. Later in the day, his own Likud parliamentary refrained from a provocative vote on referendum legislation after a three hour debate. Any further confrontation between the Likud’s anti-withdrawal rebels and the prime minister had become redundant after he approved the classical standby for steering around crises, an evenly balanced four-member panel to examine the referendum option from every angle. Its members are Sharon loyalist Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, anti-disengagement MK Gilead Ardan and two middle-of-the road members, Michael Eytan and Ronnie Bar-On.
By going forward towards a referendum, Sharon has in fact rejected the counsel of his closest advisers, Dov Weisglass, Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad, who urged an early general election in spring 2005.
debkafile‘s political sources report the prime minister’s decision is based on the following calculations:
1. He believes he can scrape together a Knesset majority for his disengagement plan next week by prudent lobbying and the judicious application of the stick. For instance, members who vote against him need not expect seats in his government.
2. His rival and predecessor as prime minister, the finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is not ready at this moment to challenge him for the top spot. Netanyahu would prefer to keep his bid on hold for the duration of the incumbent government’s term which ends in 2006. Sharon knows perfectly well that in the event of an early election, Netanyahu would most probably challenge and defeat his candidacy for prime minister in the Likud party’s central committee and primaries. The prime minister has no intention of letting this happen. His scheme therefore is:
3. To permit a national referendum that will not pose a direct question on disengagement or settlement removals, but on the Knesset resolution endorsing them. Participants will be asked a simple question: Do you support or oppose the Knesset decision?
4. Since Netanyahu is the leading proponent of a referendum which he considers the best remedy for the divisions in country, party and government over disengagement, he will be sure to stand square behind the prime minister’s strategy. By accepting a referendum, Sharon will have neutralized several obstacles at once.
5. Plucking the finance minister out of the anti-disengagement camp will leave his allies, education minister Limor Livnat and foreign minister Silvan Shalom, high and dry. Together, this trio was the most formidable bar to the passage of the settlement withdrawals plan through government. Livnat and Shalom will be left to decide whether to stick with the Likud anti-disengagement rebels, roughly one-third of the Knesset party, or jump aboard the Sharon-Netanyahu bandwagon and together face down the rebels as the party’s ministerial heavyweights.
6. To win the votes of the undecided Likud and other lawmakers in next week’s vote, Sharon will proffer the powerful lure of the coming referendum. But once he has a parliamentary mandate in his pocket, he will be in no hurry to let the referendum take place. Indeed he will prefer to drag it out as long as possible. While settlement leaders and Likud rebels busy themselves with setting up its modalities, Sharon will go forward with the process of removing settlements and military posts from the Gaza Strip, fully empowered at last.
By the time the referendum is ready to go, the evacuation process will be so advanced that there will be little point in going through with it.
7. As long as he moves forward on the pullout, the prime minister is promised a parliamentary safety net for this government by Labor and the left-wing Meretz-Yahad opposition parties. His government will therefore enjoy the security of a long-life support system.
8. Sharon will therefore have no incentive to co-opt Labor to his government or expand his coalition by any further additions.
His progress towards these objectives may sail along smoothly or run aground. He was played his strongest card by his opponents, the Likud rebels and settlement leaders, who should have stood out for a general election instead of a referendum. And, instead of pushing Sharon to the wall, they ought to have turned up the heat to force Netanyahu to run against him for the leadership. Labor also committed a tactical blunder by offering Sharon insurance for his government’s survival instead of pushing for a general election. Bringing forward the Sharon-Netanyahu contest might have depleted Likud’s energies sufficiently to restore Labor to center stage.
If Sharon follows through on a referendum and wins the Knesset round next week, he will have outmaneuvered his foes and would-be partners alike. But there is still a week left up until the Knesset vote for all these parties to come up with fresh maneuvers – or lose their footing. Yasser Arafat is also closely watching the roundabout waiting for his chance to upset the Israeli prime minister’s plans. He has already instructed the 9 Israeli Arab members of parliament to vote against disengagement next week.

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