Sharon Faces Tough Choices After Defeat

Bruised after a humiliating defeat in his own party, Ariel Sharon is considering dramatic moves to regain the political upper hand.

But pundits are divided over whether the Israeli prime minister has the strength to extricate himself from the political quicksand in which he seems to be sinking.

On the one hand, the Bush administration insists that Sharon ignore the clear Likud Party message and deliver on his promise to pull Israeli troops out of the Gaza Strip, evacuating Jewish settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank.

Sharon, too, still believes his unilateral disengagement plan from the Palestinians is the best strategy for Israel right now. But his opponents within Likud say Sharon should abide by the party’s rejection of the plan by a 3-2 margin in a referendum Sunday.

Sharon has two major choices: change the plan or change the forum. Initially, he seemed to be gravitating toward the first option, but his confidants were not ruling out other possibilities. Whatever he decides, Sharon will face major political difficulties.

In a carefully worded statement, Sharon said he deeply regretted the outcome of the Likud vote but hinted that he intended to press ahead.

"The Israeli people did not elect me to sit with my arms folded for four years," he declared. "I was elected to find a way to bring this nation peace and quiet … and I will continue to lead Israel according to my understanding, my conscience and my public duty."

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s main political backer on disengagement, was more explicit, saying flatly that the plan would not be dropped because of the Likud vote.

Disengagement from the Palestinians is the only way to solve Israel’s security, economic and demographic problems, Olmert said. The challenge is to find a way to proceed with the plan without causing a split in the party, he said.

The dilemma for Sharon is acute. He has a number of options, all of them difficult.

He could drop or alter the plan, in line with the Likud vote, or he could try circumvent his party by getting the plan approved as is in the Cabinet and Knesset.

If he fails to muster a majority in the present government, Sharon could try to form a new coalition with the opposition Labor Party — which supports disengagement — ejecting the right-wing National Religious Party and National Union bloc that oppose it.

Sharon also could call a nationwide referendum, in which current polls show he would win a comfortable majority. But none of these alternatives would be easy to pull off.

If Sharon drops the plan, he will run into trouble with the Bush administration, which took a political risk to bolster Sharon by recognizing some Israeli claims in the West Bank and rejecting a "right of return" to Israel for Palestinian refugees.

In an initial bid to satisfy the Americans and win Knesset and Cabinet support, Sharon assigned Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to work on an abridged version, in which Israel would evacuate only part of Gaza and possibly no settlements in the West Bank. Whether such a limited withdrawal would win American and international approval is an open question, and it could even fail to win the support of dissident Likud ministers.

Sharon is in a serious bind. If he dilutes the plan, he faces possible international opposition, and if he doesn’t dilute it, he won’t be able to get it through the Cabinet.

Therefore, his confidants have been intimating that the prime minister has something more dramatic in mind. But even if he decides to break up his present coalition and bring in Labor to replace the right-wing parties, it may not be easy to persuade Labor to join.

Until Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decides whether to indict Sharon on corruption charges, Labor is wary of entering the prime minister’s coalition. Moreover, given Sharon’s predicament, Labor now sees a chance for new elections in which it could make gains at Likud’s expense.

Labor leader Shimon Peres has called for new elections, saying Labor should run on the disengagement ticket. Peres said Likud has shown itself incapable of pushing through the potentially historic plan, and Sharon should accept responsibility for its failure.

Labor Knesset member Eitan Cabel has proposed a bill to dissolve the current Knesset. If it passes, it could lead to early elections within 60 days.

As for a national referendum, that would require complicated legislation. Labor’s Isaac Herzog has proposed a referendum bill but getting it through could take time. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s attempt to legislate a referendum took two years, and it was never completed.

Given these obstacles, Sharon could precipitate elections himself, a move that might even lead to a split in Likud. Pundits talk about a strong centrist bloc — composed of Likud, Labor and Shinui — running together on a disengagement ticket.

According to this scenario, the pragmatists in Likud would follow Sharon, while the right-wing ideological core, including the settler-oriented "Jewish Leadership" group led by Moshe Feiglin, would break away.

The formation of a strong, secular, centrist grouping, including Labor and Likud, is what pundits for years have been calling the "big bang" of Israeli politics.

Sharon’s defeat Sunday also leaves Israel’s foreign policy in tatters: Ties with the United States are strained, the Europeans are highly critical and the chances of a political settlement being imposed from the outside are higher. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said he hoped Sharon’s defeat would lead Israel back to the negotiating table.

Sharon’s fear is that the international community now will see both Israel and the Palestinians as rejectionists and will try to impose a peace deal on them. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, speaking for the Europeans, declared that 50,000 Likud voters can’t be allowed to hold the entire international community hostage.

Given the far-reaching implications, how did Sharon lose a vote that, if successful, would have given him enormous political power?

For one thing, he underestimated the settlers’ influence on the Likud’s rank-and-file membership. The settlers mounted a huge, energetic and costly campaign, sending young people all over the country to influence voters. By contrast, Sharon’s side, which feared violating funding rules, mounted almost no campaign whatsoever.

Sharon confidants boast that no one is as good as Sharon when under pressure. They also claim that he has a Houdini-like capacity to emerge intact from seemingly impossible situations.

That may be, but Sharon will need all his skills over the coming weeks. He cannot afford any more mistakes. This time, his political survival is at stake.

Conquest by Birthrate

A leading Arab think tank is backing an old strategy — to defeat the Jewish State from within by encouraging the growth of its Arab population.

The prime proponent of the conquest-by-demography theory is Wahid Abdel Maguid, chief editor of the Arab Strategic Report, the publication of Egypt’s premier think tank, the Al-Ahram Institute. The institute is part of the group that runs Egypt’s semiofficial newspaper of record, Al-Ahram.

"We are capable of increasing the demographic threat against Israel, if we demonstrate the necessary determination," Maguid declared in a recent interview with the London-based Al-Hayat Arabic newspaper.

Israel’s Arab population is estimated at some 1.2 million, compared with approximately 5 million Israeli Jews.

However, the Arabs’ birthrate is far higher than the Jews’, and Maguid estimates that Israel’s Arab population will equal its Jewish population in 34 years’ time through natural population increase.

Israel, of course, is not unaware of the demographic threat. Israeli surveys also warn of the dangers the Arab birthrate poses to Israel’s nature as a Jewish State, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stresses the need to bring as many Jewish immigrants to Israel as possible.

Maguid outlines a five-pronged strategy for making sure this "population bomb" can be accelerated, thus defeating Israel without another major Arab-Israeli war. Several of these processes already are under way, though not as part of a concerted Arab strategy:

Limit or reverse emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. In fact, levels of immigration have fallen sharply from their highs in the early- to mid-1990s;

Bring Arabs living inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders into close alignment with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, encourage them to spurn their identity as Israeli citizens and give them decision-making roles in the anti-Israel campaign. This development, which began with the Oslo peace process and which has been encouraged by the Palestinian Authority, saw its fullest expression in the Israeli Arab riots that accompanied the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000;

Maintain a continual intifada to discourage Jewish immigration to Israel and encourage Israelis to emigrate;

Build worldwide condemnation of Israel as a "racist" state to prevent Israeli pressure on Arabs to leave Israel or to reduce their birthrate. (This fall’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, was the apex of this effort to date.)

promote an influx of Arabs into pre-1967 Israel through infiltration and marriage. According to Israeli media reports, this is occurring now.

Maguid proposes that future anti-Israeli actions be spearheaded by Arab citizens of Israel, and be coordinated with the Palestinians and other Arab states.

He believes that Arab infiltrators into Israel should focus on marrying Israeli Arabs, making it virtually impossible for Israel to expel the illegal immigrants — at least without opening itself to charges of racism.

The population battle already has been joined, though not yet in the organized way Maguid advocates. According to Israeli estimates, more than 50,000 Arabs have moved into Israel since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

They are mainly Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians who enter Israel to find work, and take up residence in Israeli Arab communities. Security sources claim that some have carried out or supported acts of terror, and some are believed to be agents of the Palestinian Authority.

A key battleground of the future may be in the field of aliyah. One plank of the new Arab strategy should be undermining Israeli aliyah efforts, Maguid argues.

He urges Arabs to meet with candidates for immigration to Israel — especially in the ex-Soviet states — and tell them that living in Israel will present more daily hardships and security threats than they currently experience.

This is hardly new, however, as the Arabs and Palestinians mounted a fierce — though unsuccessful — propaganda effort to persuade ex-Soviet leaders not to allow Jewish emigration in the early 1990s.

Key to discouraging aliyah will be continuing the intifada, Maguid says. He also recommends stressing the feelings of "marginalization and disappointment" that some Russian immigrants reportedly feel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon constantly stresses his commitment to Jewish immigration from the Diaspora, often talking of bringing 1 million more Jews to Israel in coming decades, especially from the former Soviet Union, South America and South Africa.

The Palestinian Authority also recognizes the importance to Israel of immigration. Its spokesman condemned Sharon’s proposal for increased immigration as a "powder-keg" likely to set off a new explosion in the tense region — even as the Palestinian Authority insists that some 4 to 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants be granted a "right of return" to homes they left in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

The Palestinian Authority statement expressed fears that new Jewish immigrants could be placed in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Maguid’s fear is that — even if settled within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, as are the vast majority of immigrants — these immigrants would help Israel maintain a Jewish majority.

Both Sharon and Maguid would agree on one thing: To the winner of the population battle will go control of the state. Should the Arabs become the majority within Israel, Maguid has no doubt about the type of state that would be imposed.

"Palestine can be made Arab again — Arab, and not binational — Arab Palestine," he writes. In a new, Arab-dominated state, those Jews who wished to remain, could live "strong and respected under the umbrella of our Arab culture," he proposes.