Mr. Sharon Goes To Washington


By Leonard Fein

Published April 09, 2004, issue of April 09, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Beg your pardon? A referendum of the Likud Party to determine whether Israel will or will not withdraw from Gaza?

It is excruciatingly difficult to feel sympathy toward George W. Bush, but the imminent arrival of Prime Minister Sharon in Washington must move even the stone-hearted to just such an emotion. What will poor President Bush be thinking as he meets with a prime minister whom the Israeli state prosecutor has recommended be indicted for bribery, and who now takes his much-ballyhooed “proposal” for Israel’s departure from Gaza to a party referendum?

How very democratic of Sharon, the cursory observer might think. Far be it from him to impose his will on the nation; instead, a vote, a veritable vote.

Now imagine the outrage, the indignant cries, had a sitting Labor prime minister proposed to put so fateful a decision to a vote of the Labor Party. Or suppose that Tony Blair had only asked the Labour Party and not the House of Commons to endorse his entry into the Iraq war. And so forth.

I can recall no earlier instance of throwing a policy issue open to a party referendum. In the past, there have been central committee decisions and, from time to rare time, party convention decisions. But now Prime Minister Sharon proposes that some time in May, a few weeks after his return from his April 14 meeting with President Bush, all 200,000 members of Likud will get to vote. Is this the blunder of an increasingly desperate man or the sly maneuver of a master tactician?

Commentary in Israel tends toward the blunder theory and is mostly devoted to speculation regarding the likely outcome of the referendum. But such speculation is just that: speculation. Much depends on the atmosphere and also the substance of the Bush-Sharon meeting, and much depends on terrorist activity in the coming weeks, and much depends on Sharon’s own legal situation as the referendum draws near.

Sharon’s logic is that the extremists in his own party can only be placated by coming to understand that they are a minority within the party. They already know, from endless public opinion polls, that they are a minority in the nation. So while the proposal for a withdrawal from Gaza would almost certainly win a national referendum handily, such a vote would do little to assuage the anger of Likud’s expansionists. A rebuke from within the party, on the other hand, would compel their attention, perhaps even their grudging respect.

But how can Sharon afford the risk involved in putting the withdrawal proposal to his party? What if he loses? The most recent polls show a bare majority — 51% — of Likud members in favor of the withdrawal. A tiny shift and we reach the definitive end of the Sharon era.

Ariel Sharon knows that. He knows, as well, that the schedule is hugely in his favor: The referendum will come following his return from Washington, where he is counting on the endorsement of his plans by the United States. Better yet, by scheduling the referendum as he has, he puts Washington in a bind: Give Sharon something to go home with, or risk a humiliating defeat for what is right now the only living item on the agenda of the “peace process.”

Whether Sharon means peace, whether he is truly prepared for “painful compromises,” or whether he is as determined and as reckless as he has been throughout his career, we cannot know. His recent speeches are encouraging, but between Sharon’s penchant for surprises and the Middle East’s history of detour, we are reduced to guesswork. The only thing of which we can be sure is that Ariel Sharon is an ingenious tactician. His outlandish proposal for a party referendum, a move that puts pressure both on the United States and on the members of the party, is merely the most recent example of his tactical talent. And it is not merely America’s endorsement of the Gaza withdrawal he now seeks. He has been very nearly explicit that he wants considerably more from the United States — most specifically, a commitment to accept as final Israel’s control over and ultimately annexation of three settlement enclaves, as well as an American rejection of the Palestinian “right of return.”

That is a very hefty package, and it is inconceivable that the United States will endorse it in its entirety. For America to go on record as opposed to the Palestinian right of return — a “right” that Palestinians themselves have indicated over and over they are prepared to compromise — would be for America to lose what little standing it has in the Arab world. The only sensible course for the United States is to assert that the issue awaits negotiation between the parties, and/or to assert that Palestinian refugees will be free to return to the new Palestinian state. But what Sharon understands is that by asking for the impossible, he is likely to come home with what would just months ago have been thought the improbable: American agreement to significant changes in the borders that define Israel.

A reciprocal American demand for an early Israeli withdrawal from West Bank settlements makes analytic sense, but in an election year is unlikely to be pressed by President Bush. Accordingly, Sharon returns from Washington borderline triumphant, then wins the Likud referendum handily. And then farewell to Gaza? This being the Middle East, don’t bet on it.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.