Sharon stakes job on pullout

Israel's leader wins historic vote to withdraw settlers, but now faces revolt in his own party.

Despite scoring a major victory in a historic parliamentary battle, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now in danger of losing the political war - perhaps even his government - over his Gaza Strip withdrawal plan.

Tuesday's vote for the pullout was "historic," says Hebrew University political scientist Menachem Hofnung. It marks the first time since Israel's founding in 1948 that the nation has agreed to withdraw from land it considers part of its Jewish heritage.

The plan, if it comes to fruition, would dismantle 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, which are located on land captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

But Mr. Sharon had no time to savor his win. Instead, he now faces a rebellion from within his Likud party. Four key ministers, led by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's main rival, have issued a two-week ultimatum: Put the plan to a popular referendum, or they will resign - possibly forcing Sharon into a election.

Polls show that two-thirds of Israelis support Sharon's plan, giving credence to Sharon's view that a referendum is a delaying tactic designed to torpedo his plan.

But the rebel ministers, whose stance is backed by the National Religious Party, a junior coalition partner of Likud, are hard to ignore because they could take a large chunk of the Likud Knesset faction with them.

"There is a danger of a split in Likud," says Michael Eitan, a Likud member of Knesset who backs the disengagement plan. That would give political expression to the ideological chasm that has developed between Sharon, once the chief sponsor of settlements, and Israeli settlers and their backers, some of whom accuse him of betraying his long-held positions - and the biblical Land of Israel.

In an unprecedented broadside against his former allies, Sharon on Monday accused the settlers of being out of touch with reality and of "developing a Messiah complex." Tuesday's vote marked agreement in principle to withdraw, but in order to actually start dismantling settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank, Sharon needs Cabinet approval in March.

In making his case to the Knesset, Sharon adopted a left-wing argument based on demographics, saying controlling the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in Gaza, where there are 8,000 Jewish settlers, would call into question Israel's ability to be both a Jewish and democratic country. At the same time, he said the plan would "strengthen Israel's hold" on settlements in the West Bank. He added that the disengagement could set in motion a dynamic leading to negotiations with the Palestinians. "As someone who fought in all the wars and learned on his flesh that without might there is no chance for Israel to survive, I can say I have also learned that the sword alone will not decide matters," he said.

The Palestinians are watching Sharon warily, concerned that his real intention is, as his senior adviser Dov Weisglass said recently, to freeze the peace process. Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat told the Associated Press: "Israel should not be making unilateral decisions about the Palestinians' future. Now the seriousness of the Israeli government will depend on [its] resuming negotiations with the Palestinian Authority."

Analysts say Sharon now has three options, each with drawbacks. "His choices are between bad, awful, and unlikely" wrote Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn.

Among Sharon's options:

• Agreeing to a referendum, which, says Professor Hofnung would "mean burying disengagement for a while," because it would take at least six months to legislate and organize the referendum. "Sharon could have agreed to a referendum a week ago without losing face but not after he has won the crucial vote after disregarding all calls for a referendum. If he gives in now, it shows clearly that the kingmaker in Israeli politics is Netanyahu."

• Calling new elections, in which, analysts say, Mr. Netanyahu would likely challenge Sharon for party leadership.

• Forming a coalition with the Labor party, something the Likud party convention has voted against. If many Likud rebels depart, Sharon would be unable to garner a majority in the Knesset even with Labor, although Labor and the dovish Yahad party could provide him with a safety net against no-confidence votes. During the Knesset vote, the left-wing opposition Labor and Yahad backed Sharon.

The Likud rebels, whose numbers are estimated at 21 out of the faction's 40 seats when the four ministers are added, are intensifying a war of words against Sharon. Wednesday, a rebel leader, Uzi Landau, who was sacked from his ministry for voting against the plan, termed the Knesset vote "legal but not legitimate."

"It is kosher but it stinks," he told a press conference. "Whoever does not desire a referendum asking the will of the people bears responsibility for the breaking up of Likud," he said. "We are not trying to topple Sharon but I have a big problem with his policies," Mr. Landau said.

Michael Ratzon, who was sacked from being a deputy minister for voting against Sharon, said the Knesset vote was unacceptable because Sharon ignored results of an internal Likud party referendum in May, which voted against the disengagement plan. Because the withdrawal issue is so divisive, not holding a national referendum will "deepen the split" in the nation and party, Mr. Ratzon argued.

"I think that is an exaggeration," Mr. Eitan says. "And if the vote was illegitimate, why did they participate in it? If they would have won, they would say it was legitimate," he says.

In the view of Ronny Brison, a Knesset member for the centrist Shinui party, which backs the withdrawal, there is only a 50-50 chance the withdrawal will happen. A major terrorist attack, he says, could play into the hands of hard-liners like Netanyahu, while a referendum would amount to "a slow death" for disengagement.

"The next two weeks will be crucial," Mr. Brison says. "The whole idea of disengagement in Gaza is on the line. If it goes out the window, we are left without any viable security or foreign policy."

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