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Mr. Sharon Goes To Washington

Beg your pardon? A referendum of the Likud Party to determine whether Israel will or will not withdraw from Gaza?

It is excruciatingly difficult to feel sympathy toward George W. Bush, but the imminent arrival of Prime Minister Sharon in Washington must move even the stone-hearted to just such an emotion. What will poor President Bush be thinking as he meets with a prime minister whom the Israeli state prosecutor has recommended be indicted for bribery, and who now takes his much-ballyhooed “proposal” for Israel’s departure from Gaza to a party referendum?

How very democratic of Sharon, the cursory observer might think. Far be it from him to impose his will on the nation; instead, a vote, a veritable vote.

Now imagine the outrage, the indignant cries, had a sitting Labor prime minister proposed to put so fateful a decision to a vote of the Labor Party. Or suppose that Tony Blair had only asked the Labour Party and not the House of Commons to endorse his entry into the Iraq war. And so forth.

I can recall no earlier instance of throwing a policy issue open to a party referendum. In the past, there have been central committee decisions and, from time to rare time, party convention decisions. But now Prime Minister Sharon proposes that some time in May, a few weeks after his return from his April 14 meeting with President Bush, all 200,000 members of Likud will get to vote. Is this the blunder of an increasingly desperate man or the sly maneuver of a master tactician?

Commentary in Israel tends toward the blunder theory and is mostly devoted to speculation regarding the likely outcome of the referendum. But such speculation is just that: speculation. Much depends on the atmosphere and also the substance of the Bush-Sharon meeting, and much depends on terrorist activity in the coming weeks, and much depends on Sharon’s own legal situation as the referendum draws near.

Sharon’s logic is that the extremists in his own party can only be placated by coming to understand that they are a minority within the party. They already know, from endless public opinion polls, that they are a minority in the nation. So while the proposal for a withdrawal from Gaza would almost certainly win a national referendum handily, such a vote would do little to assuage the anger of Likud’s expansionists. A rebuke from within the party, on the other hand, would compel their attention, perhaps even their grudging respect.

But how can Sharon afford the risk involved in putting the withdrawal proposal to his party? What if he loses? The most recent polls show a bare majority — 51% — of Likud members in favor of the withdrawal. A tiny shift and we reach the definitive end of the Sharon era.

Ariel Sharon knows that. He knows, as well, that the schedule is hugely in his favor: The referendum will come following his return from Washington, where he is counting on the endorsement of his plans by the United States. Better yet, by scheduling the referendum as he has, he puts Washington in a bind: Give Sharon something to go home with, or risk a humiliating defeat for what is right now the only living item on the agenda of the “peace process.”

Whether Sharon means peace, whether he is truly prepared for “painful compromises,” or whether he is as determined and as reckless as he has been throughout his career, we cannot know. His recent speeches are encouraging, but between Sharon’s penchant for surprises and the Middle East’s history of detour, we are reduced to guesswork. The only thing of which we can be sure is that Ariel Sharon is an ingenious tactician. His outlandish proposal for a party referendum, a move that puts pressure both on the United States and on the members of the party, is merely the most recent example of his tactical talent. And it is not merely America’s endorsement of the Gaza withdrawal he now seeks. He has been very nearly explicit that he wants considerably more from the United States — most specifically, a commitment to accept as final Israel’s control over and ultimately annexation of three settlement enclaves, as well as an American rejection of the Palestinian “right of return.”

That is a very hefty package, and it is inconceivable that the United States will endorse it in its entirety. For America to go on record as opposed to the Palestinian right of return — a “right” that Palestinians themselves have indicated over and over they are prepared to compromise — would be for America to lose what little standing it has in the Arab world. The only sensible course for the United States is to assert that the issue awaits negotiation between the parties, and/or to assert that Palestinian refugees will be free to return to the new Palestinian state. But what Sharon understands is that by asking for the impossible, he is likely to come home with what would just months ago have been thought the improbable: American agreement to significant changes in the borders that define Israel.

A reciprocal American demand for an early Israeli withdrawal from West Bank settlements makes analytic sense, but in an election year is unlikely to be pressed by President Bush. Accordingly, Sharon returns from Washington borderline triumphant, then wins the Likud referendum handily. And then farewell to Gaza? This being the Middle East, don’t bet on it.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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