TEL AVIV — It was, simply judging by the history books, a milestone. For the first time in Israel’s history, the Knesset on Monday refused to give its pro forma vote of approval to the prime minister’s annual “state of the nation” speech, by which he marks the opening of the winter term of the Israeli parliament. Abandoned by members of his own party who oppose his Gaza disengagement plan, Prime Minister Sharon lost the symbolic vote by a margin of 53 to 44, and was left scrambling to sort out the damage to his government and his diplomatic plans.
This being Israel, the votes had barely been counted before politicians and pundits began searching for alternative explanations for what they had witnessed. Some said it was the beginning of the end of Sharon’s current coalition and the first step toward a unity government with Shimon Peres’s Labor Party. Some said it was the first step on the road to early elections in 2005. Some even said Sharon had engineered the whole thing in order to rid himself of the anti-disengagement rebels and set the stage for new coalition partners, beginning with his old friend Peres.
Sharon and his aides launched into a furious round of activity after the Monday vote that suggested he was preparing for just such a break with his rivals. In a rare move, he convened a meeting of Likud lawmakers and ministers who supported him, freezing out the rebels and prompting speculation that he was laying the groundwork for a party split. At the same time, his aides began feeling out other potential coalition partners, including Labor and the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
The rebels, however, were continuing to flex their muscles. A day after rejecting the prime minister’s speech, they succeeded in blocking Knesset consideration of a Finance Ministry request to fund the work of a task force that is preparing legislation on compensation of settlers to be evacuated from Gaza and northern Samaria. The request was to come before the Knesset Finance Committee on Tuesday, but the rebels managed to muster a majority on the committee to refuse to hear it.
The rebels, led by Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, claim that Sharon is trampling democracy by pursuing his plan after it was turned down in a Likud party referendum in May. They are working closely with leaders of the settler movement, who oppose any Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in 1967.
Sharon is under pressure from loyalists to submit the plan to a national referendum, in order to undercut the rebels’ claims of democratic authority and isolate the hard-core right. Some army commanders quietly back the referendum idea, fearing that the lack of a popular mandate will make the plan’s implementation dangerously divisive. The prime minister, however, has refused so far to consider the idea, insisting he can win Knesset approval and implement the plan on his own timetable.
Sharon currently heads a minority government with 59 seats in the 120-member Knesset. His efforts before the summer recess to broaden his base fell short, owing to rivalries among the parties. His own preference is to bring in Labor, which would add 21 seats alongside his Likud’s 40 and the 15 of his main partner, Shinui. But that move faces strong opposition from Likud members, who object to being cast as the right wing of a Labor-Shinui-Likud coalition. Likud members prefer a coalition with Shinui and Shas. But those two parties want nothing to do with each other. The alternative is a Labor-Shas coalition that evicts Shinui, Sharon’s most loyal supporter up till now.
Entering the summer recess, Sharon is said to have assumed that if coalition negotiations failed, he could survive through the fall with a minority government, relying on Labor to support him from the opposition in order to advance disengagement. Labor, however, has internal divisions of its own. Much of the party’s second-tier leadership is eager to bring down Sharon and force new elections, in part because they want to open the way for a challenge to Peres as party leader.
This week’s Knesset humiliation showed how badly Sharon had miscalculated. Labor failed to support him, and the opposition within the Likud was far more widespread — and far better organized — than he had anticipated.
Complicating matters was a surprising interview given to Ha’aretz before the weekend by Sharon’s former chief of staff and current special adviser, Dov Weisglass, who is widely viewed as the real father of the disengagement plan. Weisglass said the plan’s primary aim is to stifle any attempt at resuming “land for peace” negotiations with the Palestinians. He boasted that the Bush administration’s acceptance of the plan meant that no further Israeli withdrawals should occur “until the Palestinians turn into Finns — which will never happen.”
“The settlers should have danced around the prime minister’s office” instead of vilifying him,” Weisglass concluded.
If the interview was intended, as his aides explained to an infuriated Bush administration, to shore up Sharon’s right flank, it failed. The right deserted Sharon on the Knesset’s opening day. But the left, enraged by Weisglass’s words, kept away, as well, leaving Sharon deserted in the middle.
On the ground, talk of disengagement was drowned out by the noise of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers, entering the third week of the northern Gaza incursion, known as Operation Days of Repentance. Sharon himself pressured the army’s field commanders, many of whom harbor doubts about a unilateral disengagement that leaves a vacuum behind, to go on with the incursion after they believed it had outlasted its value. The October 7 bombings of resort hotels in Sinai, and the October 12 car bomb attack on the Palestinian Authority’s Gaza security chief, Mussa Arafat — blamed by Arafat himself on internal Palestinian rivalries — only highlighted the uncertainty hovering over Gaza.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met a day after the Knesset vote with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of Shas. Yosef is considered relatively moderate on territorial questions, but his voters lean rightward. He has stated his opposition to the disengagement plan, arguing that it would increase the risk of terrorism. Mofaz’s mission this week was to try and persuade him that it would make Israel safer.
This seems to be Sharon’s new script: a quick agreement with Peres — most observers believe such an agreement is all but signed — and a deal with Shas. That would leave the Likud rebels with the unappealing option of opposing their leader in a move that he would be guaranteed to complete even without them.
As currently scheduled, the plan will be presented to the Knesset for ratification on October 25. A week later, November 1, the house will receive a second measure authorizing compensation for the settlers to be evacuated. Most observers believe that both measures will pass comfortably, despite this week’s humiliation, since Labor and the parties to its left are certain to vote for them. The question is whether Sharon can hold on to power long enough to implement them.