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Dramatic Reversals Bring New Support for Gaza Plan

TEL AVIV — Israel’s military intelligence chief warned the Cabinet this week that America’s mounting troubles in Iraq might prompt it to seek broader international backing and pay for it with the “Israeli coin” of forced concessions that Israel can ill afford.

The intelligence chief, Major General Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, told the Cabinet that Israel could forestall the pressure by adopting Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, which he said would “change reality and reduce terrorism.”

The warning was an abrupt about-face for Ze’evi, who just three months ago was declaring that unilateral disengagement would lead to an increase in terrorism.

Ze’evi was not the only one to reverse himself this week. His boss, army chief of staff Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, and the chief of the Shin Bet internal security service, Avi Dichter, both spoke out at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting in favor of the Sharon plan, after having warned against it for months.

It was a week studded with dramatic Middle East reversals. And none was more dramatic than the makeover of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Known for years as one of Sharon’s most implacable critics in the Arab world, Mubarak emerged this week as the Israeli leader’s staunchest ally, pledging in a phone call to do whatever he could to save Sharon’s embattled initiative — and by implication, Sharon’s job.

The centerpiece of Mubarak’s save-Sharon effort is a revolutionary plan drawn up by the Egyptian intelligence minister, Brigadier General Omar Suleiman, following months of intensive shuttle negotiations with Palestinian factions and Israeli leaders. Under the Suleiman plan, the Palestinians would implement a complete cessation of terrorist activities in advance of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Israel, for its part, would agree to let Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat leave the Ramallah compound, where he has been confined for two years, and travel to Gaza to take up the reins as head of the newly autonomous Palestinian district. Arafat, in turn, would agree to accept figurehead status and yield all control of Palestinian security forces to his prime minister, Ahmed Qurei.

Equally dramatic, Egypt would post military advisers in Gaza to supervise the reorganized Palestinian security forces — Egypt’s first direct involvement in the Palestinian district since it was driven out by Israeli troops in 1967. And Israel might agree to let them in.

Nothing more clearly indicates the scope of the change sweeping through the region this week than the fact that Sharon and Arafat appear to be seriously considering the Suleiman plan, which would require both men to abandon principles they have held paramount for decades.

Arafat has foiled every past attempt by Israel and America to deprive him of his omnipotent position, while just weeks ago Sharon would have preferred to take on the whole world rather than see Arafat — whom he personally despises — go free. More than once in the past three years of fighting, Sharon has displayed clear satisfaction with Arafat’s humiliating condition, while the Palestinian leader has seemed almost to relish his martyr-like position.

Now, it appears, Sharon’s threatened political demise may yet change all this — although nothing is certain at this point.

Meanwhile, Sharon has been undergoing quite a few humiliations of his own. His diplomatic profile changes almost daily: He first thought of revising the disengagement plan, dividing it into phases and promising to submit every phase to the Cabinet for independent ratification. But that proposal failed to mollify the opposition within the Likud, which is now headed openly by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s archrival. Once the opposition rejected the phased plan, Sharon decided to give up on seeking a compromise and instead vowed to bring the plan as a whole to the Cabinet for a vote last Sunday. Then he reversed himself again and announced that the vote would only take place next week.

Instead of voting Sunday, the Cabinet held a prolonged and futile debate, rich with personal remarks and snide comments. “Some people in this room act out of personal motives rather than the good of the country,” Sharon said at one point, clearly referring to Netanyahu, who retorted: “No one in this room has a monopoly over the good of the country.”

A public opinion poll, published by the daily Ma’ariv, indicated that Sharon enjoys far greater support among Likud voters: Sixty-one percent of them claimed that should there be primary elections between the two, they would vote for Sharon. Netanyahu received the support of only 25%. Equally important, 54% said they supported Sharon’s plan, while only 31% shared Netanyahu’s misgivings.

But the Likud’s Knesset caucus appears to feel otherwise. Likud lawmakers would prefer almost anything to new elections, most of them doubting the party would repeat its success in the 2003 campaign and fearing for their own position. Their sense is that the Likud’s rank-and-file, regardless of its theoretical beliefs, resents the way Sharon is trying to circumvent the party’s will, as expressed in a May 2 referendum that resoundingly rejected the disengagement plan.

In a caucus meeting at the Knesset on Monday, the day after the Cabinet meeting, Sharon found himself facing a withering surprise attack from Likud backbenchers. Most vocal was Naomi Blumenthal, a former deputy minister fired by Sharon when she refused to testify in a police investigation of suspected campaign violations.

“You are vain and arrogant!” Blumenthal shouted in the stunned prime minister’s face. “You disrespect and humiliate us. If you want to disengage from the Likud, you are welcome to join (Labor lawmaker) Haim Ramon.” Other lawmakers were less insulting, but also indicated their complete opposition to Sharon’s political maneuvering. Sharon, known for his self-confidence and sarcasm, sat silently.

Blumenthal and her allies hardly would have dared to attack Sharon had they not felt that Netanyahu had decided to go all the way against the prime minister. Throughout his political career, Netanyahu has been mostly cautious and suspicious, and during his tenure as finance minister, he has relied heavily on Sharon’s support. But the prime minister’s failure in the Likud referendum apparently has convinced Netanyahu, widely considered the heir apparent should Sharon falter, that it is time to act. Leaks from sources close to the prime minister stating that Netanyahu might be sacked did little to deter him. “Sharon doesn’t want to fire me,” Netanyahu confidently told Fox News.

Netanyahu was engaged in negotiations to seek a compromise with Sharon’s justice minister, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid of Shinui, who was trying desperately to find a middle ground that would preserve Sharon’s diplomatic initiative in some form without breaking up the current coalition. But Lapid’s talks had led nowhere by midweek, and parties on the right, led by Avigdor Lieberman’s National Union Party, were openly making preparations to bolt.

Sharon, for his part, dismissed any talk of watering down his disengagement plan to please the right. Even if he were considering it, the White House announced, after a meeting between National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, that it would not accept anything less than the full disengagement plan Sharon described to Bush on April 14.

Most Israelis reacted to the rapid chain of events with bewilderment. After three-and-a- half years of seemingly endless war with no hope of change, suddenly they had entered a period where change was the only constant.


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