The Sharon-Netanyahu Contest and the Palestinian Agenda

US president George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas are certain the Israeli government did the right thing in uprooting Israel’s civilian presence from the Gaza Strip ahead of the final pullback of troops on Sept. 15.
But their gratification is likely to be short-circuited by the rush of events on the ground. Already, Sharon is paying the price for his action. The praise he won from Bush and other world leaders for his courage in going through with evacuations is proving expensive: his Likud has set in train the first steps for his ouster, accusing him of deserting its principles by expelling Israeli communities for nothing at best, a heightened terrorist menace, at worst. His long-time challenger, Binyamin Netanyahu, translates Sharon’s courage and the praise thereof as “a headwind for Palestinian terror.”
Netanyahu’s belated challenge to Sharon’s leadership is less important per se than the dangerous prospect of its outcome being determined not by the Israeli voter but by Palestinian terror tacticians.
Had Abu Mazen followed up on the Israeli pull-back with determined action to disarm and disband Palestinian terrorist organizations and then moved forward to join Israel in peace negotiations, Sharon could taken the Netanyahu threat in his stride. But this is not happening. The fact of the matter is that the level of Palestinian terror is climbing day by day, and the first post-evacuation suicide attack has already taken place in Beersheba. Israeli troops are still in Gaza demolishing Israeli homes and dismantling their installations – and already they are targeted by the gunmen of the first outside Palestinian terror group to arrive from Lebanon, Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-GC.
Palestinian violence will fuel Netanyahu’s chances of toppling Sharon – unless the Sharon government shows it can fight back. Evacuated Gaza, far from becoming Abu Mazen’s power base and a place to start the de-terrorization of people, is turning out to be a magnet for his most extreme opponents. PLO politburo chief Farouk Kadoumi threatens to come over as soon as the last Israeli soldier is gone. The Palestinian terrorist command bases in Damascus and Lebanon are packing their bags ready for the journey to Gaza. For the first time in 40 years, they see their chance of taking the war against Israel into its heartland and getting their terrorists inside the Jewish state.
None of these terrorist chiefs will miss the opportunity afforded by Israel’s pullback from the Gaza Strip, any more than did the late Yasser Arafat when offered the chance to reach Palestinian areas by the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
A possible breaking-point lies ahead in mid-September, when prime minister Sharon is due in New York for the UN General Assembly opening. He expects cordial encounters with many world leaders, most likely including Bush, and lavish praise for his bold steps in Gaza and the northern West Bank, very much like the plaudits collected by Iyad Allawi when he was still prime minister of Iraq. Sharon has never made a trip to the United States that was not rudely interrupted by a major terrorist attack at home. He need not hope that September 2005 will be any different.

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