Sharon’s Payouts for Gaza Pullout

The fourteen months since Ariel Sharon unveiled his unilateral disengagement have been for him a personal hurdle race to knock over the political and military opposition to his plan by fair means or foul. In the process, he trampled several values and mores that most Israelis had taken for granted. Critics were punished by the wrecking ball, champions and cronies lavishly rewarded with jobs and handouts from the same 2005 state budget that denies medicines to cancer victims, cuts retirees’ pensions, slashes child support, invalid and jobless allowances and pauperizes small businesses and the former backbone of the economy, the middle class.
Wednesday, March 30, the Knesset finally turned against these tactics. More than 70 MKs out of 120 stalled when asked to confirm three new ministers, two from Likud, and five deputy ministers whom Sharon had decided to reward for standing by his battle to force the evacuations through. Leading Likud rebel Uzzi Landau declared the prime minister had turned parliament into a whorehouse. Other MKs on both sides of the house spoke of Sharon’s “gutter methods.” Likud ministers reported pressure and threats from the prime minister’s office to vote for the new appointments, or else.
In pushing his disengagement through, Sharon has shown no mercy to critics. He axed the chief of staff and Shin Beit chief whose combined efforts contained the nearly five-year Palestinian terror war and were on the way to vanquishing it; before that, he broke up a government coalition that had the largest majority of any in Israel’s history – only to joined forces with an opposition party that had hounded him for two decades; he turned his back on the majority of his own Likud party and froze the anti-disengagement dissenters – settlers and supporters from around the country, including veteran founders of Israeli left-wing kibbutzim – out of every legitimate political avenue of protest.
The outcome that may now be unavoidable is a brutal, violent confrontation between the men in uniform and the citizens they are trained and geared to protect. Meanwhile, the media have been harnessed to drip poisonous snippets of “news” to discredit the anti-evacuation campaign and demonize the movement.
But even the tame media voiced outrage when opposition leader Tommy Lapid of Shinui (Change) frankly changed his spots and accepted Sharon’s open bribe of $160 for pet projects to buy his party’s 16 Knesset votes for the state budget. Failure to carry the bill by March 31 would have automatically toppled the minority government and torpedoed Sharon’s plan to remove all 21 Jewish locations and Israel’s military presence from the Gaza Strip in July, as well as four communities in the northern West Bank. Shinui saved the day just months after being purged from the government for standing up to Sharon’s much smaller $64 m pledge to the ultra-religious Torah Judaism for the same purpose: supporting the government all the way through to pull-backs. A small Arab Israeli party was the highest paid of the three, making off with a fee of $160m for its two members’ votes.
The budget beat the deadline Tuesday night March 29 by two days. The day before, a bill for calling a referendum on the unilateral disengagement plan was predictably defeated – again by opposition votes. The prime minister claimed the measure was a ruse to delay the pullbacks and he voted against it, even though the anti-disengagement movement promised to obey any majority ruling of this poll and drop its resistance to the evacuations. Of the 40-member Likud faction, 27 raised their hands to support the bill and defy the prime minister, among them six cabinet ministers, the Knesset Speaker and the chairman of the key Defense and Foreign Affairs committee.
The fact that he was in a minority of 13 in his own faction did not faze the prime minister.
Two hours after the budget was passed, he was already handing out fresh prizes to his backers – two ministerial and five deputy ministers’ posts for Likud adherents plus one minister’s portfolio for Labor, his coalition partner, to sustain the cabinet’s internal balance.
After losing their political battles in parliament, the anti-disengagement activists are deep in debate over their next steps. Whatever they do, they must reckon on facing a new chief of staff, new Shin Beit chief and new police commissioner – each handpicked for his willingness to carry out orders from the prime minister’s and defense minister’s offices. The six Likud ministers opposed to the removal of settlements – led by finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu – have vacillated throughout between their Likud loyalties and fear of losing their jobs. They finally came down on the latter option.
Not surprisingly, the movement for lack of strong pragmatic leadership is in danger of being pulled toward militancy by wild fringe groups who want more action. They are not satisfied with the campaign begun this week to block main national arteries with burning tires, or the encampment set up around Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip to house a 100,000-strong rally for Passover in less than a month. A deeply worried former NRP minister and general, MK Effi Eytam, who was dismissed from Sharon’s original cabinet for his staunch resistance to disengagement, turned this week to a former buddy, internal security Minister Gideon Ezra, to suggest that some of the settlers would voluntarily turn in their weapons close to the evacuation date. He was anxious to prevent random gunfire that could trigger a bloody clash between settlers and evacuation forces and spiral out of control. Ezra promptly leaked the appeal in distorted form to the media to falsely present the majority of protesters as wild radicals.
Even government bureaucrats are treating the 8,500 prospective evacuees with hostility, building up the red tape and dreaming up obstacles – even for those offering to pick up and leave of their own free will. All they ask is the compensation promised them for giving up their homes and livelihood. But because of the delays, some may stay put.
No one therefore knows how many will leave before the July 25 deadline and how many will stay and fight the thousands of police and troops descending on their homes. Gaza Strip will be declared a closed military zone at least 45 days before the forcible evacuations begin and the press will be restricted.
But while the families due for eviction are stocking up on food and other siege provisions, the government is way ahead of them, preparing land in the Western Negev to accommodate the evictees.
None of Israel’s many independent civil or pro-democracy groups have spoken out for the rights of a group of people who were encouraged by successive Israeli governments, Labor and Likud, to build their lives in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the interests of national security. Their most ardent champion was Ariel Sharon, who now wants to remove them.
Oddly enough, the human rights group Betzelem, which focuses almost exclusively on cases of abuse against Palestinians, makes this point at the tail end of its annual report. While denying the legality of the settlements, Betzelem notes that they were not established by private individuals but by successive Israeli governments which therefore bear full responsibility for upholding their occupants’ human rights. The rights group terms Palestinian attacks on these settlers “war crimes” under international law. Betzelem also contends that since the government’s disengagement plan is opposed by large parts of the Israel public, their democratic right to protest is enshrined in international and Israeli law. Therefore, the scope of their resistance may not be restricted. Betzelem criticizes the Israeli ministry of justice’s bid to restrict this freedom of expression by amending the law to expand the definition of punishable agitation or incitement. Equally reprehensible is the attorney general’s declared intention to approve defense ministry applications for the administrative detention of protesters. These steps would impair the individual’s right to fair judicial process and are therefore a violation of his rights.

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