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High Noon at Sycamore Ranch

Last weekend’s Likud party defeat of Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal proposal has thrown Israeli politics into confusion. With no road map to go by, the country is busy trying to guess the wily old general’s next move.

Sharon has already dismissed calls for him to resign or to withdraw the plan. Instead, he will take a little time to decide whether he will take the softer route of watering down the plan and posting it for a bit or the tough route of forging ahead despite opposition within his own party.

The decision will not be taken lightly. The Gaza plan is no minor initiative for Sharon. It is intended to be nothing less than his security legacy for Israel. Even under the best of personal circumstances — if he survives a legal indictment and political battles — Sharon will be retiring within the next two years. This plan, then, is likely to be his last major act in public life.

The plan is also of the greatest importance in another way. It is a major strategic shift in the history of Israel, as well as the country’s first comprehensive post-peace process program. There is a national consensus supporting the idea, though there are also quite a few risks which discourage enthusiasm. Even many of those Likud members who stayed home or voted against the plan did so not because they oppose ever dismantling a settlement, but because they worried that a unilateral withdrawal would seem like a retreat and thus encourage more terrorism.

The Gaza plan’s basic conception is to weld together the two main aspects of current Israeli thinking across much — but by no means all — of the political spectrum. From the left comes the idea that Israel is willing to accept an independent Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. From the right is taken the view that at present there is no Palestinian partner for ending the conflict.

What exists then, in Sharon’s view, is a long interim period. During that time, Israel must not succumb to paralysis or be enslaved by the status quo. He thus proposes to leave an area where the chance of violent confrontation and casualties is high, and where the strategic value or probability of Israeli retention is low. Despite his international reputation, Sharon has always been a pragmatist, not an ideologue. This is the kind of step taken by a general assessing his position on a battlefield, not a politician — like, say, Menachem Begin or Benjamin Netanyahu — who is going to stand firm on a matter of principle.

At the same time, the decision to withdraw from almost all Gaza — except for a corridor along the Egypt-Gaza border in order to prevent arms smuggling — as well as a section of the West Bank is taken right out of the Labor Party platform. This is Sharon’s “De Gaulle moment,” when he takes a dramatic step that no one further left on the political spectrum would dare, or get a chance, to do.

Sharon managed well his international flank, securing support against serious odds from both from President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Doubts about exactly what this commitment meant, however, undercut the value of these endorsements domestically.

It is also a measure of how cynical Israelis are about foreign opinion and involvement that no one suggested unilateral withdrawal was a way to improve Israel’s image and support abroad. After seeing how foreign pundits and governments encouraged Israel to take risks during the Oslo peace process and then became so hostile and abusive when it failed, Israelis don’t expect anything from that quarter and are not interested in taking actions in trying to please international opinion. That a total reversal of Israel’s historic position toward territory and settlements could be judged by Europe and the Arab world as a trick or even some kind of punishment for the Palestinians shows how far gone is the world’s view of this issue.

At any rate, the boldness of Sharon’s strategic conception was matched by major bumbling on the tactical level. I was in the audience for the two major presentations of the plan, the first by Sharon and the second by his deputy, Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert. In both cases, the audience was sympathetic to the idea. But the advocacy of both men was lackluster, to say the least. The decision to seek a referendum in their own party and the pitifully inadequate campaign they waged for approval were, respectively, stupid and incompetent.

Now Sharon is left with two options, and it appears he will take some time to make up his mind. The first alternative is to adjust his position to the vote. This includes hints that he will reduce the extent of the withdrawal, postpone its implementation or rethink the plan altogether. If Sharon is going to ignore his own party’s referendum, he cannot do so too quickly.

But while this is the easiest choice in political terms, it also presents some big problems, as Sharon would have to go back to a policy of relative passivity toward Palestinian terrorism. On a political level, this means largely waiting for Yasser Arafat to die while engaging sporadically in talks with the Palestinians that go nowhere. Even more problematic, this is the only approach that might damage Israel’s relations with the United States. Having first secured Bush’s support and then changing the plan, Sharon is inviting a rebuke from Washington.

The prime minister’s other choice is to forge ahead, whether at full or lower speed. Such a decision would be Sharon’s crossing the Rubicon — or, perhaps a better analogy for the ex-general, equivalent to his 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal in a bold offensive that helped win the Yom Kippur War. He would have to steel himself to a walkout by small right-wing parties, perhaps a split in the Likud itself, and a national unity government with the Labor party. Certainly, Shimon Peres, the 80-year-old leader of the opposition, is open to such a deal. But that would be nothing short of a revolution in Israel’s politics.

The moment is Sharon’s to win or lose.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and co-author of “Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

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