JERUSALEM — With the last parliamentary hurdles cleared before Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza-West Bank disengagement plan, opponents declared this week that they were taking their battle to the streets.
“The time for politics is over,” the chairman of the Gaza Coast Regional Council, Avner Shimoni, told protesters who had gathered outside the Knesset on Monday, circling the walls like Joshua at Jericho. “It’s time to move on to the next stage.”
What the next stage might consist of was not clear, but government and security leaders were bracing for the worst. Confrontations between soldiers and West Bank settlers have turned violent on several occasions in recent days, touching off angry exchanges within the army’s General Staff over how to respond.
Sharon maneuvered his way through two complicated Knesset votes to clear the path for disengagement, beating back an attempt to force a national referendum on the pullout, and then winning approval for his government budget — both by solid majorities. Opposing him was a small bloc of pro-settler lawmakers, including two right-wing parties — and most members of his own Likud Party. “Sharon got the disengagement but lost his own party,” commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Aharonot.
Sharon’s parliamentary opponents bemoaned the Knesset decisions and vowed to keep up the fight on other fronts — including efforts to expand and annex West Bank settlements and block further compromise. The defeat of the referendum was “a sad day for democracy and for this country,” Sharon’s main opponent within the Likud Party, former minister Uzi Landau, told the Forward. “But we will continue the battle to fight for Jerusalem… and the democratic and ideological character of the Likud Party.”
Outside parliament, however, settler leaders and their allies warned that the fight could turn ugly. One top figure, Bentzi Lieberman, chairman of Yesha’s Settlers Council, warned that with all their parliamentary options now closed, settlers’ anger could lead to civil war. Sharon “has now invited the kingdom of the extremists to rule the streets,” Lieberman told the Forward. “He has invited them into the house.” Lieberman himself has repeatedly spoken out against settler violence.
Another foe, lawmaker Arieh Eldad of the right-wing National Union, warned on Israel Radio that by stopping the referendum, “Sharon missed the opportunity to prevent an assassination.”
Despite the inflammatory language, intense negotiations were going on this week between settler leaders and army and police officials to prevent bloodshed when troops come in July to evacuate the 21 settlements in Gaza and the four in the northern West Bank. A deal was reportedly in the works under which settlers would hand over their personal weapons several days before evacuation, Ha’aretz reported.
Still, signs were mounting that resistance would be pressed right up to the brink. Yesha’s Settlers Council announced last week that it had chosen its first-ever chief spiritual leader, naming former chief rabbi Avraham Shapira, who has been the main voice calling on soldiers to disobey evacuation orders.
Of some 1,500 settler families in Gaza, only about 100 have signed compensation and relocation agreements so far with the civilian Disengagement Authority. Most will move to kibbutzim and to villages just over the border in Israel proper. Several hundred more, mostly from secular settlements in northern Gaza, are expected to accept the authority’s offers in the coming weeks. Hundreds of others are known to be digging trenches, storing food and water, and laying barbed wire.
Channel Two television reported this week that some synagogues in the territories had decided to drop the weekly recitation of the Prayer for the Welfare of the State, drafted by Israel’s chief rabbis in 1949 and read on the Sabbath in synagogues around the world.
Settlers and their allies had mounted a massive lobbying blitz to win this week’s fight in parliament. Much of it was directed at Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which holds 11 seats in the 120-member house. Yosef has ruled in favor of territorial compromise for peace, but he is also a bitter critic of Sharon and his disengagement plan.
Sharon, for his part, focused his efforts on the secular Shinui Party, which quit his coalition last year to protest his courting of ultra-Orthodox parties and vowed to oppose the budget almost to the last minute, despite its support of disengagement, because of giveaways to Orthodox groups.
Yosef received a parade of right-wing leaders begging for his support in the final hours before the vote, including both Landau and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The rabbi told the visitors that he would support them if they could guarantee a majority that would bring Sharon’s government down and force new elections. Shas parliamentary leader Eli Yishai waited outside the hall during the first round of voting to see if Sharon’s foes could garner 50 votes. When they could not, he came in and delivered his 11 votes to save Sharon. The referendum was defeated by 72 votes to 39, with only the National Religious Party, the National Union and 27 of the Likud’s 40 lawmakers opposed. The budget passed the next day, with a smaller but solid majority.
“We fought like men, but fell like flies,” a Likud defector said. “That’s it, it’s over.”