Pullout Plan Sparks Clash on Legitimacy

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon powers ahead with plans for disengagement from the Gaza Strip, charges are flying between proponents and naysayers determined to gain monopolies on legitimacy, each side accusing the other of trampling democratic norms.

The settlers claim Sharon does not have a popular majority for his plan and accuse him of "behaving like a dictator." Sharon retorts that the settler claims are a deliberate ploy to justify undemocratic, violent resistance.

To settle the legitimacy question and take the sting out of the settler campaign, some pundits and politicians are suggesting a national referendum on the evacuation issue.

Sharon says no. He argues that these proposals are a ruse to hold up, and ultimately sink, his plan, which also includes evacuating some West Bank settlements.

The arguments over legitimacy and the referendum proposal will almost certainly dominate public discourse in Israel in the coming months.

In a front-page editorial, Amnon Dankner, editor of the mass circulation Ma’ariv newspaper, compared the current situation with that in the months leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin nine years ago. Dankner implied that Rabin had ridden roughshod over democratic norms and so provoked the settlers’ anger and violence that led to his assassination, and that Sharon was now doing the same thing.

The Rabin government, Dankner wrote, had only achieved a majority for the Oslo accords by "buying" the vote of right-wing Knesset member Alex Goldfarb, making him a deputy minister and providing him with the Mitsubishi sedan that came with the position. This, wrote Dankner, was "democracy only in name, not in spirit, not true democracy." And, he continued, "it’s obvious how this pushed the settlers into a corner, and how it lit the fires of incitement and murder."

Now, according to Dankner, Sharon is doing something similar: He has ignored party votes against his plan and fired right-wing ministers simply to obtain a Cabinet majority for it.

"The prime minister," Dankner wrote, "is pushing the disengagement plan with a blunt, crude and ugly trampling of democratic values and majority decision," and, like Rabin, would be partly to blame for the consequences.

In Dankner’s view, the way to avoid this would be to reinforce the legitimacy of the prime minister’s policy by holding a national referendum — a vote he is virtually certain to win. Although Dankner was criticized for implying that Rabin was largely to blame for his own assassination, several pundits and politicians agreed with his demand for a referendum.

The most outspoken of them was Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He argued that the Gaza pullout plan is tearing the nation apart, and that a referendum would help reduce tension and preserve unity.

He proposed expedited Knesset passage of a referendum law, which would be required to even hold a referendum. Then should a referendum be held, he supports putting just one simple question to the voters: "Are you for or against the gradual evacuation process approved by the government?"

But as simple as it seems, Netanyahu’s proposal highlights the complexity of the issue. He speaks of expedited passage of a referendum law, but legal experts say it could take months, if not years.

First, there is the general question of what circumstances could lead to invocation of a referendum. Then, there is the matter of the referendum question. Sharon would never accept Netanyahu’s formulation; the prime minister wants to carry out the evacuation process in one fell swoop, rather than in stages.

Moreover, legislators could haggle for months over whether the referendum would need a simple majority or a plurality of 60 percent or more. Opponents of Sharon’s plan could delay things further by challenging the legislation to create a referendum in the courts.

Sharon’s allies suspect that Netanyahu’s proposal is merely intended to embarrass the prime minister by putting him in a no-win situation. If he accepts Netanyahu’s proposal, passing the legislation will take so long it will sink the evacuation plan; if he doesn’t, he will appear undemocratic, afraid to put his plan to the nation for approval.

Sharon confidant, Ehud Olmert, argues that the very raising of the referendum idea by Netanyahu implies that Sharon’s evacuation plan does not have full legitimacy and requires the further imprimatur of the people. But, says Olmert, Israel’s trade and industry minister, all the prime minister needs in accordance with the Israeli system is approval from the Cabinet and the Knesset — and he is assured of the support of both.

Sharon says the referendum proposal is a transparent attempt by his opponents to gain time. His confidants go further. They say the settlers are bandying the referendum idea about, knowing full well that Sharon will reject it, in an effort to delegitimize the evacuation process and legitimize the use of force against it.

Tough right-wing statements and actions suggest swelling undercurrents of violence. Netanyahu’s father, Bentzion, along with other family members, recently signed a petition describing the planned evacuation as a "crime against humanity" and urging soldiers "to listen to the voice of their national and human conscience" and refuse to carry out evacuation orders.

Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagi Ben Artzi, a settler, noted that "only the Nazis had transferred Jews" and intimated that there would be violent and even armed opposition.

Baruch Marzel, a former member of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s now-banned Kach organization, has set up a new radical right-wing group called the Jewish National Front, dedicated to resisting evacuation.

Another former Kach member, Rabbi Yosef Dahan, has said that, if asked, he would be willing to carry out a "Pulsa da-Nura," a religious curse condemning Sharon to death. Extremists performed Pulsa da-Nura ceremonies against Rabin in the weeks leading up to his assassination in 1995.

In this volatile situation, settler leaders admit to playing a canny double game. On the one hand, they are trying to win the hearts and minds of mainstream Israelis just in case there is a referendum. To this end, they are consciously toning down settler rhetoric.

At a huge settler demonstration in Jerusalem Sept. 12, they took pains to silence extremists and take down banners that went too far. But at the same time, they admit to turning the flames of incipient violence "on and off" and allowing the threat of civil war to hover uneasily in the air.

As the showdown over evacuation approaches, both the prime minister and the settlers are acting within brittle parameters of legitimacy and perceived legitimacy and resorting to on-the-edge brinkmanship. In both cases, it is a dangerous game that could get out of hand.

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.