The political shrewdness of Ariel Sharon

No one could regard the dismantling of the biggest Jewish settlement block in Gaza as a small thing
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The Independent Online

Last weekend, Israel's mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on a letter sent to Ariel Sharon by 46 army reservists who had just finished tours of duty guarding the small, isolated - and frequently attacked - Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza. The letter unequivocally backed the Prime Minister's plan to disband the Gaza settlements; but what was even more striking was the hostility shown to the settlers themselves by the signatories of the letter who spoke to the paper.

Last weekend, Israel's mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on a letter sent to Ariel Sharon by 46 army reservists who had just finished tours of duty guarding the small, isolated - and frequently attacked - Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza. The letter unequivocally backed the Prime Minister's plan to disband the Gaza settlements; but what was even more striking was the hostility shown to the settlers themselves by the signatories of the letter who spoke to the paper.

One major, Michael Halimi, declared: "Why do I have to commit suicide for 60 families? We do not want to die for irrational settlements. We became the servants and chauffeurs of the settlers in Netzarim." Major Halimi went on to recount an incident in which troops had been obliged to travel to Netzarim late at night to escort a settler who had missed the regular convoy - only to be attacked by Palestinian militants using an RPG and a machine gun. "If a soldier had been hurt," he added, "what would the residents have said to his parents?"

Because this is Israel, where every thesis has its antithesis, a counter-group of reservists has now stated their opposition to the disengagement plan, on which Mr Sharon has said there will be a cabinet vote on Sunday. But it is Major Halimi and his colleagues who reflect the views of a large majority of the Israeli public, as underlined yet again in a poll for Maariv this week.

This is is part of what helps to give Mr Sharon the energy, at 77, to try and overcome the formidable political obstacles in the way of his plan, many of them of his own making. It was clearly a disastrous - and uncharacteristic - mistake to put the plan to a referendum of Likud members. He thought that with the generous concessions on the scope of any final peace deal with the Palestinians made to him in April by President Bush, he would be able to persuade the membership.

But he forgot the iron law of party politics, that activists are always much slower to shed ideological positions than the voting public. In hindsight it's clear that his best hope was to bounce his ministerial opponents immediately after he arrived back from Washington in triumph. Instead the referendum has served to entrench the position of his - in several cases personally ambitious - ministerial opponents.

To understand the underlying dynamic, it may be necessary to rise above the minutiae of political infighting in Israel. The meaning of the Sharon initiative, even if implemented in full, should not be overstated. It does not create, even in Gaza, whose coastline, air space and borders will still be controlled by Israel, any kind of viable Palestinian state.

Although a few of the most optimistic Israeli commentators have suggested that this is Mr Sharon's Yitzhak Rabin moment, stemming from an old man's desire to go down in history as a peacemaker, the Prime Minister himself has implied with some clarity to his domestic audience (if less so to an international one) that he sees it as an alternative to a peace deal with a Palestinian leadership which he insists currently includes no acceptable negotiating partner. The plan offers no substantial withdrawal from the West Bank, where most of the 250,000 settlers live; indeed by offering what the Palestinian academic Ali Jarbawi calls not land for peace but "land for time", Mr Sharon is open to the charge of seeking to delay a final peace deal and the further concessions it would require.

Mr Sharon's plan nevertheless goes with the grain of Israeli public opinion in a way that the posturing of its right-wing opponents doesn't. But this is not the only reason that most of the Israeli left are bound to support it - provided that it is not so diluted by the negotiations that continued yesterday as to be doubtful of implementation at all. The left could hardly argue in favour of keeping the settlements until some all-too-distant final peace deal. That illustrates the political shrewdness of the plan, but also an objective reality.

If the plan were to be implemented, it would be the first real reversal of the relentless policy of settlement expansion, so energetically promoted by Mr Sharon himself. No one who has been exposed to the mystical self-belief of the residents of Gush Katif, the biggest Jewish settlement block in Gaza, can regard its dismantling as a small thing, or easy to accomplish. If implemented, moreover, the plan creates a precedent of unpredictable force.

With negotiations still under way yesterday to try to unite the Likud ministers, the exact terms - and therefore robustness - of the disengagement plan to be debated on Sunday is not yet certain. But the honourable refusal yesterday of one of the coalition partners, the extreme right National Religious Party, to accept such a compromise could be suggestive.

For in order to show that the plan means anything, the NRP and the National Union, two parties that believe that the long-term preservation of the Jewish state is compatible with a claim on all the territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, pretty well have to leave the government, sooner or later. It would then be up to the Likud ministers to do as Mr Sharon has done, and listen to the majority, as represented by those 46 army reservists, and not the minority represented by the settlers of Gaza.

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