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Sharon Fights To Save Plan, Political Life

TEL AVIV — Following his drubbing in a Likud party referendum of his own devising — widely seen as the worst political blunder ever by an Israeli leader — Prime Minister Sharon was struggling this week to find a way of staving off the demise of his disengagement initiative and, some said, of his career.

The initiative, which called for withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank, was defeated by a stunning 19-point margin in the May 2 party referendum, with 59.5% opposing the plan and 40.5% in favor. The defeat sent shock waves through Israel and the international community, which had reluctantly accepted Sharon’s plan as a limited first step toward what was expected to be a broader withdrawal later on. With the initiative stalled and no backup plan, Sharon faced limited options, all of them unappealing.

Only 51% of the Likud’s 193,000 members voted in the referendum. Even so, the margin of the opponents’ victory made it impossible for Sharon to claim, as he apparently hoped to do in case of a narrow defeat, that the fate of Israel should not be decided on the votes of a few thousand people.

Sharon had devised the unorthodox ballot as a way of pressuring wavering right-wingers in his Cabinet to support the unilateral disengagement, banking on polls that showed him with a double-digit advantage as recently as three weeks ago. But the gambit backfired as his support collapsed dramatically in the last two weeks before the vote.

Conceding defeat, Sharon promised to “respect the party’s decision.” At the same time, though, he vowed to continue his efforts to improve the security situation. “The people of Israel did not elect me to sit idly for four years,” he said. “I was elected to bring the peace, security and quiet that the people want and deserve.”

The political community was rife with rumors as to what the prime minister had in mind, if indeed he knew himself. His choices were limited, caught as he was between the rock of the Likud vote and the hard place of his commitment to President Bush. Bush had spent considerable diplomatic capital to endorse the disengagement initiative despite fierce criticism from Arab leaders. The plan’s rejection by the Likud appeared to leave the administration baffled and annoyed, and Sharon was under huge pressure to find a way of keeping his promise.

Most observers said Sharon had three main options. He could bow to party will and drop his disengagement plan. That, however, would anger Washington. It would also leave Israel stuck in its current stalemate vis-à-vis the Palestinians: unable to defeat them, unwilling to negotiate with them and now unable even to separate from them — and Sharon appeared unlikely to go that route.

Alternatively, Sharon could attempt to proceed with the plan despite the rebuff. That would risk a split in the party, however, and there is no guarantee of Cabinet or Knesset approval. In a sign of the hurdles ahead, key members of his government, including the trio of reluctant supporters — Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat — made it clear that they will consider the referendum result binding in any future Cabinet or Knesset votes.

In preparation for that option, Sharon reportedly ordered Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz this week to prepare a new version of the plan. Unlike last time, Mofaz was told to work closely with the army command, in order to avoid the much-discussed security-related doubts that helped sink the first plan.

Some advisers were urging a third tack: a stripped down “mini-disengagement,” involving withdrawal from just three Gaza settlements and two or three in the West Bank. That was seen as easier to push through the Cabinet and the Knesset. But settler leaders, who led the opposition to the first plan, said they would oppose a mini-disengagement just as fiercely. And the mini option appeared unlikely to satisfy Washington, much less the broader international community.

Pressure from the international community mounted this week despite, or because of, the referendum results. The Middle East Quartet — the diplomatic partnership of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — met in New York for the first time in a year and announced full support for Sharon’s disengagement plan, pointedly ignoring the referendum results. The Quartet insisted that the plan be implemented in full as a first step toward large-scale Israeli withdrawal. It was the first major international endorsement of Sharon’s plan, and its timing, after the plan had been rejected at home, was not lost on Israelis.

Adding to the pressure was the opposition Labor Party, whose support is considered key to Sharon’s survival if he decides to implement any initiative. Labor leader Shimon Peres told Army Radio on Tuesday that Sharon was paralyzed by his right wing and called for new elections — even though overnight polls after the referendum showed a new election would leave the parties’ strengths unchanged.

Sharon met with Peres on Tuesday to brief him on the security situation, leading to speculation that plans were in the works for a national unity government of Likud, Labor and Shinui. Peres reportedly took a hard line, declaring that he would support only a full disengagement, not a stripped-down plan.

Still, the very fact of the meeting had some politicians speculating about a political “Big Band,” a reshuffling in which Sharon would leave the Likud and form a new centrist bloc together with Peres and Shinui leader Tommy Lapid. Cynics noted that the trio has an average age in excess of 75.

In fact, the referendum emphasized the power balance within the Likud, where the rank and file now appear to hold veto power over the party leadership. Numerous observers warned that the ruling party was being taken over by representatives of the settler movement, who ran an emotional, well-organized and well-funded campaign against Sharon’s plan. But the plan’s opponents ran strongly in virtually every sector of the Likud, particularly in the development towns and the powerful Jerusalem branch. Sharon ran strongest in established areas such as Tel Aviv and Netanya, but even there opponents took nearly half the vote. It seemed in the end that most Likud members, whether they chose to vote or not, simply thought that the prime minister’s plan was a bad bargain for Israel, White House endorsement or no.

Thus Sharon, barely two years after his landslide re-election, finds himself in a political impasse, battling a lame-duck label and with no obvious way out. If that were not enough, he still must await the decision later this month by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz on whether to indict him on bribery charges. The referendum may have weakened Sharon even in his legal battle. The attorney general had been under pressure not to indict the prime minister unless the evidence guaranteed a conviction; some commentators warned that an acquittal might produce accusations that the legal establishment had forced an innocent prime minister from office. Now that pressure is off. It is much easier to file charges against a leader whom people view as living on borrowed time anyway.

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