TEL AVIV — Buoyed by a drop in terrorist attacks, rising economic indicators and a general feeling that a break may be coming in the deadlocked conflict with the Palestinians, Israelis celebrated their nation’s 56th birthday last Tuesday with a display of joie de vivre of the sort not seen in three years, since the intifada broke out in September 2000.
An estimated 1.5 million Israelis, one-fourth of the population, visited parks and forests for traditional Independence Day hikes and barbecues, causing huge traffic jams and leaving more than 500 tons of garbage piled in campsites. The media reflected the mood in a rash of upbeat articles with headlines like “56 Reasons Why It’s Good to Live in Israel” and “The 56 Best Things in the Country.” One survey picked the best-liked local celebrities; another selected the most popular Israeli movie of all time (the winner: “Halfon Hill,” an army satire directed by Assi Dayan, son of Israel’s most celebrated war hero).
The celebration was as much about the future as the past or present. “There is a chance,” said the left-leaning Ha’aretz in an editorial, “that by Independence Day No. 57, Israel will be at the rising of a new dawn.” The reference was to Prime Minister Sharon’s widely popular disengagement plan, which would withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank next year. Sharon touts the plan as way to reduce Israeli-Palestinian “friction.”
As Israelis celebrated the anticipated changes, however, it didn’t go unnoticed that the day’s most visible event was a powerful show of opposition to those very changes. More than 70,000 people crowded the roads leading to a checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, heading for an Independence Day protest against the intended evacuation of settlements in southern Gaza. By midday, traffic was so backed up at the dusty checkpoint, usually traversed by just a few hundred travelers a day, that rally-goers began leaving their cars and walking toward the border, only to be turned back by Israeli troops for security reasons.
Most observers saw the rally as a clear sign of what is yet to come as Israel gears up for the May 2 Likud party referendum on the Sharon plan. Not all the Gaza protesters were Likud members, the only ones allowed to vote in next week’s referendum. Still, the turnout made it plain that opposition to the plan, both inside and outside the party, will be a force to reckon with. Topping the billing were members of Sharon’s own Cabinet, who called on the crowd to oppose the prime minister’s initiative. Diaspora affairs minister Natan Sharansky, the onetime Soviet dissident whose Israel Ba’Aliya party merged into the Likud after the last elections, roused his audience with a warning to Sharon that he ”cannot disengage from this crowd.” Housing Minister Effi Eitam, whose National Religious Party is threatening to withdraw from Sharon’s coalition should disengagement move forward, promised an even more forceful reaction once the evacuations begin. If soldiers come to remove settlers, he told the Gush Katif protesters, “We will be here. We will resist the intention to throw Jews out of their homes in any legal way possible.”
Polls show Sharon winning the vote, but his margin has shrunk in recent days to a point that aides privately call too close for comfort. The prime minister had expecteded a bounce following his April 14 White House summit, where President Bush announced important concessions on future border changes and Palestinian refugee resettlement. The U.S. shift prompted a furious outcry from Palestinians and their backers in Europe and the Arab world, seemingly proving to the Israeli public the wily Sharon’s toughness in outmaneuvering the other side. Jordan’s King Abdullah II canceled a planned White House visit in a protest that was seen as embarrassing to the Bush administration — though the gesture now appears to have been a coordinated move that allows Bush to offer matching concessions to Jordan after Sharon’s referendum.
Upping the ante, Sharon issued a veiled threat to Yasser Arafat in a television interview last Friday, saying he was no longer bound by his promise to Bush not to harm the Palestinian leader. That prompted an even more furious international outcry, including a stern warning from the White House. By Sunday, Sharon’s own ministers were backing away from the threat. “The prime minister doesn’t intend to carry out anything next week or today or tomorrow,” Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Army Radio.
Instead of a boost from all these maneuvers, however, Sharon found his lead dropping this week from 60-plus points in mid-April to a narrow 47-to-40 spread, statistically a virtual dead heat.
Even if he wins the referendum, Sharon is not out of the woods. Questions remain regarding the future — both Israel’s and the prime minister’s. If he loses the vote, most observers agree, he is as good as gone. Israel is then back to square one in the conflict with no alternative plan. If Sharon wins, he could still be forced to step down in the coming months, depending on whether Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decides to accept the recommendation of state prosecutors and indict Sharon on bribery charges. In that case, the Likud would have to appoint a successor to pick up the reins.
The race for succession was casting a long shadow this week over Sharon’s efforts to win support for his disengagement plan. Of his five top ministers, only two were firmly behind him: Olmert, the first and most outspoken Likud proponent of unilateral withdrawal, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, whose political fortunes are currently tied closely to Sharon’s. Three others, including his most likely heir, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, committed themselves to the plan in the most non-committal way possible. The three, Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat, all declared last week that although they support the plan, they would not appear before Likud gatherings to urge party members to vote for it.
These mixed signals reflected the convoluted political reality in which Sharon’s policy is popular with most Israelis but is widely disliked within his own ruling party. Sharon’s ministers are skittish because of uncertainty over his victory next week; no less important, they do not want to hurt their own standing within Likud ranks in the upcoming struggle to succeed him.
Another key player remained non-committal, or at least tried hard to seem that way: the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon. In a string of Independence Day interviews, Ya’alon repeatedly dodged the question of whether he supported the plan or not. Typical was his response to the daily Ma’ariv: “I don’t wish to express myself in terms of support or opposition, because this is too simplistic. We’ll see soon enough what exactly is decided and implemented.” Hardly a strong endorsement from the official largely viewed by the public as the chief guardian of their safety.