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In Gaza Face-off, Sharon Shows Foes Who’s Boss

JERUSALEM — For a day as historic as this one, the scene last Tuesday was almost comic: Ariel Sharon, facing the most crucial vote of his present term as prime minister, sat stoically at his usual place in the Knesset, eyes forward, hardly blinking. The four ministers challenging him, including finance minister and heir apparent Benjamin Netanyahu, huddled in a nearby room, leaking threats to the media and waiting in vain for Sharon to deign even to talk to them. Finally, when the showdown seemed imminent, they sneaked into their seats in the main hall and raised their hands dutifully in favor of Sharon’s disengagement plan. At the end of the day, Sharon had his victory, by a margin he himself never thought he would have — courtesy of Netanyahu and his fellow rebels.

Almost lost in the political melodrama, which was carried live on all major Israeli TV channels, was the decision itself. The Knesset, of course, ratified the government decision that called for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria. The outcome had never been seriously in doubt.

But minutes after the final count was announced — 67 for, 45 against, seven abstaining — yet another ultimatum was issued by Netanyahu and his three fellow rebel ministers, Education Minister Limor Livnat, Health Minister Danny Naveh and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz. Now, they declared, Sharon had two weeks to agree to a national referendum on the plan. Otherwise, they vowed, they will resign their Cabinet posts.

It was just one of many strange images to emerge from Sharon’s long day. Another was the vote breakdown: The prime minister’s majority was made up mostly of members of the opposition. All 21 members of the Labor party voted for the plan, as did the six members of the leftist Yahad-Meretz movement. On the other hand, no fewer than 17 of the 40 lawmakers from Sharon’s own Likud party voted against, including Minister Uzi Landau and Deputy Minister Michael Ratzon, both of whom were summarily fired by Sharon minutes after the vote.

During the hours before the vote, few predicted the drama ahead. Outside the Knesset a huge demonstration against disengagement drew some 15,000 settlers, many of them children whose presence gave the area around the parliament building the incongruous look of a huge field day.

Inside there was far less excitement. The plan’s right-wing opponents, led by Likud hard-liners and smaller pro-settler parties, were concerned mainly with lowering Sharon’s margin in hopes of undercutting any claims of moral legitimacy. “I believe it should be something like 63 to 55,” former minister Benny Elon of the National Union Party told the Forward hours before the vote. “If those are the numbers, we will claim that this isn’t a real majority. After all, at least five ministers will vote ‘yes,’ against their own convictions and against their own Cabinet votes.”

At the same time, the left was busy pressuring the eight members of Arab parties to vote in support of a compromise plan championed by one of their community’s most hated symbols. The Arab lawmakers unanimously favor an Israeli withdrawal, but they opposed the plan’s unilateral aspect. Given Sharon’s expected majority, they felt free to vote against, knowing that their votes wouldn’t topple the plan.

Strangely enough, the members of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party expressed the same view; they, too, said that had Sharon been at risk of losing, they would have rallied for him, because they believe that the plan would save Israeli lives. But since the prime minister’s victory seemed ensured, they decided to vote “no.”

While the opposing whips worked on wavers at the margins, the recalcitrant Likud ministers, Netanyahu, Livnat, Katz and Naveh, mapped out their own moves. The four share misgivings about the disengagement plan, but not enough to block it. They did, however, see an opportunity to put pressure on Sharon, weaken him for a future leadership challenge and boost their own popularity among the Likud base, which had rejected the plan in a party referendum last spring. Now they decided it was time to pounce. About 30 minutes before the vote, they told reporters they would vote against the plan unless Sharon agreed to a national referendum. They also leaked word that their “no” votes would bring the number of supporters to below 60, or less than half the house, further reducing the legitimacy of Sharon’s victory.

Sharon, whose contempt for Netanyahu is well documented, played hardball. Twenty minutes before voting time, he settled into his seat in the chamber, refusing to come out and meet the rebels and waving away their envoys. Any Cabinet minister who failed to support the plan, his aides made clear, would be fired immediately.

Behind the scenes, the other old fox of Israeli politics was hard at work: Shimon Peres, ostensibly the head of the opposition, pressured the Arab lawmakers hard to vote for the plan or at least to abstain. They complied; two voted yes and the other six abstained, creating a margin of victory that few had thought possible only moments before.

Labor and Social Affairs Minister Zevulun Orlev of the pro-settler National Religious Party delivered the coup de grace to the opposition’s hopes. Orlev, who represents the party’s fading, Modern Orthodox wing, had been resisting pressure from the settler faction to quit the government ever since the initial disengagement vote last summer. A half-hour before the vote, he issued the threat his base wanted — but not the way they wanted it: He announced that the prime minister had two weeks to agree to a referendum, as the four Likud rebels demanded; otherwise, his party would quit the coalition at once. Though presented as an ultimatum, the offer gave Sharon two weeks — an eternity in Israeli politics.

And thus the stage was set for the showdown, which fell flat. The four rebel ministers weren’t present at the first round of the roll-call vote. Netanyahu was clearly visible in the wings, but didn’t enter the hall. As the roll call ended, the four ministers, facing Sharon’s threat empty handed, took their seats. In the second round, they quietly uttered their ayes. Sharon had his great victory, and his supporters declared that Netanyahu had again been exposed as a shameless schemer.

It was great drama but hardly a final decision. Sharon still faces the urgent need to remake his coalition. His preference will be to bring Labor in as soon as possible. Peres is definitely willing, but his coveted seat — foreign minister — belongs to another hero of the night: Silvan Shalom. Shalom changed early in the game from rebel to ally. He stood by Sharon and now awaits his reward. Without it he still could switch sides to Netanyahu.

Then there is the vengeance of Likud members. They are still smarting from Sharon ignoring the party’s plebiscite and are in no mood to reward him by approving a Likud-Labor-Shinui coalition in which they form the right fringe. But without a coalition, Sharon won’t muster a Knesset majority for the budget as required in the coming weeks.

For all that, no one could deny the historic nature of the moment. Nine years to the day after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, according to the Jewish calendar, his main nemesis Ariel Sharon — chief patron of the settler movements and hawk extraordinaire of Israeli politics — had moved a decision through the parliament to withdraw from territories and displace 7,000 settlers. And unlike every prime minister who had tried before him to challenge the settlers, Sharon had lived to enjoy the maneuvering and fight another day.

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