Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent a message to his supporters that sounded a bit like the one George Bush sent out to the world after Sept. 11: either you are with us or you are against us. On Sunday, not nearly enough of his own Likud party members voted with him - or more specifically, with his "disengagement plan" to evacuate the approximately 8,000 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip and four small settlements in the West Bank. As polls predicted, the prime minister lost a referendum among 193,000 of his right-wing party members Sunday, spinning the country into a new domestic political crisis. Exit polls taken by the three major Israeli TV stations showed that between 56 percent and 62 percent of Likud voters rejected Sharon's plans.
Prior to the vote, Mr. Sharon warned his party that to turn it down would hurt Israel's relations with the Bush administration, which has given its support to the disengagement plan, and even made a first-ever acknowledgement that some of the largest West Bank settlements would remain in Israeli hands in the long term. What's next for Sharon, analysts say, runs the gamut: call early elections, revise the plan - dubbed "Plan Lite"- or form a "national unity" government with the Labor party, which could mean relaunching negotiations with the Palestinians.
Even as voters went to the polls Sunday, Palestinian gunmen shot and killed a pregnant Israeli mother and her four daughters, aged two to 11. They were driving on a road connecting the Gaza settlements. Later in the day, Israeli missiles struck a Palestinian building in Gaza which housed a Hamas radio station. Four militants were also killed by helicopter-launched missiles in the West Bank city of Nablus, medics and Palestinian officials said.
To members of the Likud and many Israelis, the death of the 34-year-old woman and her children epitomized what they view as the increased danger to Israel of turning over land to Palestinian control.
"Here you have a symbol today of the thank you that we're going to get from the Arabs for giving them all these gifts," says Rachel Sapperstein, a US-born Israeli who now lives in the settlement of Neve Dekelim. "You can imagine the anger, the hurt and the sadness. We have withstood over three years of attacks [since the start of the second intifada], and now the prime minister is ready to give away homes, synagogues, and schools to the people who are trying to murder us."
Ms. Sapperstein, who teaches English in a local settlement high school, says that for the past month, many of her students have spent their evenings canvassing the country, armed with films and flyers explaining their reasons for living in Gaza. "We're saying, look us in the eye and tell us you want to throw us out," she says. "They went around country with lists, city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood. They called and knocked and begged and pleaded. They saw pictures of our beautiful farms and people said, 'Oh my goodness, we thought it was a little dump.' They saw children say, 'Please, are you're going to throw me out of my home?'"
The campaign against Sharon's plan continued all the way to the polling stations. Parents with children in tow asked voters to turn down the plan to clear out Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied after the 1967 war. Sharon's campaign for the plan, however, was not nearly as effective, and even key ministers in his Likud party gave only tepid support. By the end of last week, polls showed that Sharon could not muster enough support to pass the measure in the referendum. "Sharon needs a miracle," read the headline of a column in the daily newspaper Maariv. By mid-day voter turnout was as low as 10 percent, evidence that many potential voters viewed his plan as a virtual lost cause.
"Turnout tends to be lower because voters don't show up if the results seem to be already decided," says Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University and author of "The Last Days of Israel. "So I think the public opinion polls hurt Sharon very much. It's sort of a self-fulfilling prophesy." The party-only referendum, unprecedented in Israeli history, was very much of Sharon's own making. It was built on a combination of arguments Sharon has been making: that Israel has no peace partner in the Palestinian Authority as lead by Yasser Arafat, but that Israel should disentangle itself from the Palestinians so as to avoid having "to rule over another people," as Sharon put exactly a year ago. Borrowing a page from Israel's last left-wing prime minister, Ehud Barak, Sharon said that Israelis and Palestinians needed to separate. Like the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had promised he would bring any potential land-for-peace deal with Syria to a national referendum, Sharon sought the approval from within the Likud party as a way to show he had sufficient backing to withdraw from Gaza.
Ironically, if Sharon had put his plan to the entire Israeli electorate, it would have passed, pollsters say. More than two-thirds of Israelis support the idea of withdrawing from Gaza, according to recent public opinion polls.
The very concept of "getting out of Gaza" has been floated on and off by politicians here almost since Israel gained control of it from Egypt, and most Israelis view it as place of poverty and violence not of their own making. Jewish ties to Gaza, home to over a million and-a-half Palestians, are not viewed by many Israelis as being nearly as deep as their roots in the West Bank, often referred to here by their Biblical names, Judea and Samaria. Still, the Israelis who live in the Gaza settlements, many of them built on dunes overlooking the Mediterranean, argue that their roots here - both ancient and modern - run deep. Many people there work in farming, and residents include a generation of Israelis raised in Gaza and having their own children there.
One of the reasons that Sharon picked on Gaza is that he thought we were quiet people," Sapperstein says. "We never got up and shouted and screamed." They did, however, get up and organize. For weeks, the country has been blanketed in posters opposing the disengagement plan; pro-withdrawal signs were nowhere to be found. Just last week, the Gaza settlers called a demonstration against Sharon's plan on Israeli Independence Day, and managed to attract some 60,000 people, including several members of parliament. Many of them argue that if Israel withdraws from Gaza, Palestinian groups will use the territory to attack Israel proper, such as nearby towns in the Negev Desert. Uzi Landau, a ultra-hawkish member of the Likud, said Sharon's plan would allow the Palestinians to set up "terrorist mini-states" in Gaza and in the northern West Bank. Moshe Arens, a senior parliamentarian in the Likud Party, is a prominent opponent of Sharon's disengagement plan. "Sharon made a move that does not indicate good judgment. If dismantling the terrorist infrastructure has been part of the Likud policy for so long, how it is that anyone would support this?" says Arens. "When Sharon put forward the idea of referendum, he commited himself to what the majority would decide. I think it's very difficult for him to do otherwise."
Although Sharon has said he will move forward with his plans regardless of the outcome of the referendum, many analysts say they aren't sure Sharon can survive such a political setback. Sharon himself said as much last week in a final plea to members of the Likud. If they didn't vote for the plan, he suggested, they might effectively be voting for a change in government. "It's hard for me to think about the problems Israel would have to face if the disengagement plan fails," Sharon said in a television interview week. "I think it will cause the country to deteriorate to (new) elections....I don't know how possible it will be to run the country's affairs if the disengagement plan doesn't pass."