Sharon-Netanyahu Showdown Looms

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon is in a hurry. But the harder he pushes to speed up his disengagement-evacuation plan, the more he provokes the settlement movement, its supporters in his own Likud party and a whole range of opinion, including parts of the military command. His haste has drawn a backlash in the form of the warnings heard in the last few days that forcible evacuations could plunge the country into civil war.
Because no elected body has thus far approved settlement removals, Sharon is manufacturing momentum for a fait accompli by engineering bureaucratic and legislative measures. Tuesday, September 14, he will present the security and foreign affairs cabinet with the principles of a draft law defining the scale of compensation owed settlers for the loss of their homes and businesses in 21 Gaza Strip locations and four in the West Bank. First come, first served. Sharon hopes to squeeze this preliminary step through one day before Israel closes down for the New Year-Yom Kippur-Succoth season on Wednesday, September 15. He is now pinning his hopes on attractive monetary incentives for drawing volunteer evacuees into breaking the wall of opposition to the uprooting of settlements. A settler prepared to relocate in under-populated Galilee in the north or Negev in the south will receive double compensation – roughly the equivalent of $200,000 instead of $100,000.
Changes in the government lineup have improved the prospects of cabinet endorsement for this bill. The prime minister’s immediate goal is to pre-empt the massive pro-settlement demonstration scheduled for Sunday, September 12, in Jerusalem.
The controversy is becoming infused with high emotion as both camps raise the stakes in the immediate term. Sharon will brook no suggestion that his plan is stalled and declares with raised voice that nothing on earth will stop the removal of the settlements he has decided to jettison. One settler, Eliezer Hisdai, who lost a daughter in a Palestinian attack, warned defense minister Shaul Mofaz this week of a possible en masse refusal by soldiers to carry out orders. Justice minister Tommy Lapid heatedly accused settler leaders of incitement to violence and defying democratic norms. He warned that the forces of law and order would not take this lying down, sparking a whole new wrangle over the limits of freedom of speech. The settlers retorted that if anyone is violating democratic norms it is Sharon who is dividing the nation over policies for which he has no mandate from any elected body.
Although the issue is genuinely incendiary, debkafile has been told by its exclusive political sources that much of the fresh heat is sparked by a different factor: word is going round the ministers and top political circles that a decision has been reached by former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a former Likud prime minister himself, to run against Sharon in the next party primaries as candidate for prime minister. After biding his time quietly in the wings for the last couple of years, he now tells his confidants it would be a mistake to postpone a direct challenge any longer. His moment has arrived.
Netanyahu has chosen his moment partly under the influence of the latest turnaround upping president George W. Bush’s rating in opinion polls. In America, the majority appears unimpressed by the negative media coverage of the president’s record in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite such disappointments as the failure to find Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the continuing combat in both countries, Bush is gaining ground against Kerry as a war leader.
Israel’s mass media are likewise plugging Sharon’s policy as backed by most Israelis. For five years, the Likud prime minister did indeed prove unbeatable. This looks like changing. Since he came up with his stubbornly held plan to remove settlements, his popularity has been sliding. Polls held secretly in the last two weeks among the general public show results that reflect the May 1 poll held in the Likud party – with an important difference. A majority does indeed favor disengagement from the Palestinians, but 58 percent are also against the violent uprooting of settlements. Sharon’s attempts to merge the two issues are not accepted.
Where Netanyahu parts ways with the prime minister is in his adherence to traditional Likud tenets, which negate the removal of Jews from their homes in any part of the Land of Israel. In the light of the current mood, he believes he can beat Sharon in a party primary and go on to win a general election as the party’s prime ministerial candidate
The finance minister’s political timing appears to be apt.
His two main rivals for the succession to the 74-year old Likud leader, both enthusiastic supporters of evacuation, are out of the race for the moment. The party has rejected deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert time and time again. Mofaz by backing the prime minister is tying himself in knots. He is combining his performance as great champion of the Israeli armed forces, lauding their success in warding off continuous waves of terrorists, while at the same time going out on a limb for the sake of the project to remove Israelis, lock, stock and barrel, from the Gaza Strip – against the advice of his own generals, who see great danger ahead.
In a further contortion, Mofaz is trying to shunt the hands-on job of wrestling Israeli civilians out of their homes away from the soldiers and onto the very reluctant police. But he will not be able to keep the soldiers out of the fray. The Palestinians are determined to subject the evictions, if they do take place, to heavy fire in order to demonstrate that they have got the Israelis on the run. The defense minister certainly understands that in such circumstances, the entire project is bound to be fraught with bloodshed, costing the lives of settlers, police and soldiers alike. And after the no doubt traumatic event is over, he cannot be unaware of the perils entailed in unilaterally abandoning the Gaza Strip to an avowedly hostile enemy. By sticking to Sharon, therefore, Mofaz is paying heavily in popular credibility.
If the prime minister is really so sure he enjoys popular support for his plan, as his spokesmen insist, why not hold a general election on the settlement evacuation issue? And why did he reject the proposal advanced this week of a referendum? Above all, knowing what he knows, why is he still hell-bent on pushing down the throat of an unwilling country a policy that is patently divisive and unworkable, at best; dangerous, at worst?
It is this refusal to back off at any price and the Sharon’s sliding popularity that Netanyahu has decided to exploit as a fulcrum for swinging back into the prime minister’s office.

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