By all accounts, Ariel Sharon figured he had a sure thing going when he announced his plan for a Likud party referendum on disengaging from Gaza. His assumption, it seems, was that his legendary rapport with the grass roots would yield a landslide endorsement, cowing his right-wing opponents and giving him a free hand to proceed with the tricky disengagement initiative.
It was, we now know, a disastrous miscalculation. It was disastrous in its conception, in its execution and, we fear, in its consequences, though that last remains to be seen.
Sharon’s choice of a battlefield, the Likud party membership list, proved to be ideal for his opponents. It gave the right a home-court advantage and left Sharon unexpectedly fighting an uphill battle. The settler movement’s uncompromising, messianic vision resonated well among the Likud grass roots. Opponents hammered their message home in a disciplined, emotionally effective campaign, handsomely financed by donations from American Jewish rightists, augmented by settlement treasuries fat from years of Israeli taxpayer subsidies. Sharon’s allies, astonishingly, failed to mount a serious counterattack, hampered by overconfidence, infighting and inadequate financing.
The result of the referendum is a decision that has no legal standing, but carries enormous political weight. It has the appearance of democracy, though none of the content. Still, appearance is not a small thing.
Sharon is not technically bound to honor the voters’ decision, but he will have a hard time ignoring it. His opponents, far from cowed, are now energized, feeling the wind behind them and revved up for the next round. As Sharon tries to put the pieces back together he will find his options severely narrowed, not least because potential allies in the Knesset and even in his own Cabinet will be looking over their right shoulders. Every politician in Israel will be weighing the political cost to be paid for siding with the hapless prime minister against the well-oiled settler machine.
What can Sharon do now? He could honor the results of the referendum and drop his plan for getting out of Gaza. But that way lies catastrophe. Israel’s confrontation with the Palestinians has turned into a steadily worsening quagmire, a self-perpetuating cycle of rage, violence, military crackdown and more rage. To save itself, Israel must separate from the Palestinians. The overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that. They know that holding onto the entire biblical patrimony is a messianic delusion that threatens the survival of the Jewish state. Separation from the Palestinians is an existential imperative.
Ideally, that separation should come as part of a negotiated peace agreement. The Israeli public has repeatedly made it plain that it would rather not dismantle settlements and give back land without some guarantees in return from the Palestinian side. At the same time, however, they are unwilling to negotiate with the existing Palestinian leadership so long as it refuses to crack down on terrorism. Yet few on either side expect any such crackdown to take place under the current circumstances. And so the stalemate continues.
Sharon’s plan offered a way for Israel to break the deadlock by taking a first step. Gaza was a logical place to start, if only because the Israeli stake there is so minimal. The territory has little religious significance. The settlements there are an absurdity, 7,500 Israelis living on 35% of the district’s land while 1.5 million Palestinians are crowded into the remainder in appalling conditions. An Israeli pullout would show good faith, reduce the deadly confrontation on at least one front and create a laboratory for the Palestinians to demonstrate their ability to govern themselves as good neighbors. The plan made sense not just to Israel’s citizenry, as every opinion poll made clear, but to a growing segment of the international community. Indeed Sharon, so long reviled in world opinion, was becoming the white knight of the Middle East. With Islamic rage and terrorism spreading around the globe, Sharon’s initiative seemed to offer a glimmer of hope, the first in a long time, that things somewhere could begin to turn around.
It would be a mistake of historic magnitude to let that glimmer of hope be snuffed out by the votes of 60,000 participants in a mock referendum of no legal or moral standing. Sharon owes it to his public and to the world to move forward.