JERUSALEM — Israel’s right wing is gearing up for a confrontation with the government in the coming days, in the wake of Prime Minister Sharon’s decision this week to start removing so-called illegal Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank.
Sharon announced on Sunday that he had decided to remove four outposts, out of an estimated 50 to 100 such sites that he agreed to remove under the terms of President Bush’s road map to peace. The move was partly in response to public clamor for change and partly a response to growing signs of anger in Washington over his failure to move against the outposts until now.
The announcement has prompted intense mobilization among settlers, who are expected to turn out by the thousands in an attempt to block the troops or at least raise the political price of the evacuation and thus discourage future ones.
Sharon’s announcement came in the midst of a furious outcry from the left over the shooting by soldiers last Friday of a left-wing Israeli activist participating in a protest against the separation fence. The shooting prompted criticism from across the political spectrum, including Sharon himself, who said at a Cabinet meeting that the troops should have used crowd-control methods instead of live fire. He ordered an investigation.
The incident failed, however, to become the political firestorm first expected, as news coverage quickly focused on the protesters’ attempts to cut down the hugely popular separation fence, dampening their initial sympathy. By Monday the shooting victim was being questioned in his hospital bed as a suspect by police, but the public’s attention had moved on to other crises, including a paralyzing new round of public-service strikes and Sharon’s outpost plans.
The decision to remove four relatively minor outposts, only one of which is inhabited, was met with derision from the Labor Party and the left, and the Palestinian Authority called it a “public-relations stunt.” Still, it caused agonizing on the right. Leaders of Sharon’s right-wing coalition partners, the National Union and National Religious Party, were urging caution, saying it was too early to bolt the government.
Among settlers, however, sentiment was growing that the evacuation of the one inhabited outpost, Ginot Arye, could set a dangerous precedent. Given Sharon’s stated plan to remove legal, established settlements, settlers say this is where they must make their stand. Rabbis of the Yesha Settlers’ Council called for a human chain around the outpost when troops arrive. As many as 10,000 could respond.
Some Sharon advisers suggested that a televised confrontation between soldiers and settlers might actually help him. For one thing, the public supports removing “unauthorized” sites. Also, the image broadcast to the world community, especially to Washington, would show Sharon ready to make “hard decisions” and keep his word to Bush.
Moreover, if the right-wing ministers are dragged by their followers into a coalition crisis, Sharon can form a unity government with Labor, a potentially popular move.
Ginot Arye may thus develop into a critical test-case for Sharon. This week the chief of the army’s central command, Major General Moshe Kaplinski, issued orders for expedited treatment of appeals against the evacuation, narrowing the settlers’ legal maneuvering room.
Sharon’s critics downplayed his moves, noting that he had backed away from plans to remove the established outpost of Migron, a focus of U.S.-Israeli tension, concentrating instead on a handful of mostly empty sites.
Indeed, critics noted, Sharon has done almost nothing in the past half-year, since publication of the road map and the June summit at Aqaba, to honor his pledge and remove the 100 or so outposts.
It is possible, that the left’s reaction to Sharon’s declarations was more dismissive than usual, intensified by the shooting at the fence, in which an Israeli was seriously hurt and a foreign activist lightly wounded. In scenes broadcast in Israel and worldwide, Golani Brigade soldiers were seen firing at demonstrators trying to break through a gate. An uproar ensued when the injured Israeli, Gil Na’amati, 21, was identified as a kibbutznik who recently completed combat service and whose father, Uri, is a local politician. Tensions mounted when it emerged that the officer who gave the order to open fire was from the West Bank settlement of Elkana.
The left, led by former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, accused the army of having a “light trigger-finger.” Some critics intimated archly that the army never dared fire on right-wing settlers, even when they had physically threatened soldiers, not just a fence.
The incident appeared to have radicalized the left and may portend new opposition militancy. But it failed to gain public traction, particularly after soldiers told of fears that the protesters were Palestinian extremists intent on rushing them. “I had visions of the Ramallah lynching,” one soldier told an interviewer, referring to the November 2000 beating deaths of two soldiers by a Palestinian mob. Moreover, some prominent leftists dismissed the outcry, insisting the anger reflected a double standard since Palestinians are shot near the Gaza fence almost daily without protest.
Sharon’s advisers meanwhile brushed off the protests of left and right equally and insisted the prime minister was moving ahead with the plans he outlined recently at the Herzliya Conference: making a deal with the Palestinians if it is possible; unilateral separation if it isn’t.
Sharon’s aides admitted that he had “virtually given up” on the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, who he doubts will confront Palestinian terrorists. But aides insisted Sharon was sincere in promising unilateral measures, noting the appointment this week of Major General Giora Eiland, Sharon’s new national security adviser, to head a team mapping out the details of his unilateral plan.
Veteran Sharon-watchers are split about his ultimate intentions. Some, such as Amir Oren of Ha’aretz, say the diplomatic moves are meant to deflect attention from Sharon’s own legal woes. Even so, Sharon may ultimately be trapped by his own words and forced into unilateral measures if only to contain the public’s growing impatience.