The bulldozer stalls

With his right-wing allies in revolt and Bush unable to cut him any more sweetheart deals, Israeli leader Ariel Sharon is floundering -- and he has only himself to blame.

By Aluf Benn

Published May 11, 2004 7:51PM (EDT)

For Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, this is the most confusing of times. The loss of the Likud Party referendum over his "disengagement" plan to unilaterally withdraw Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank hurled Sharon into a leadership limbo. Caught between his commitment to U.S. President George W. Bush to implement the plan, and the resistance of most Israeli Cabinet ministers, Sharon is trying to buy time to regain the initiative and survive politically rather than become a lame duck.

Sharon's original timeline was very upbeat. He wanted to pass the referendum and present the plan for Cabinet approval on Sunday, then make a triumphant trip to Washington next week. He planned to address the annual conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, along with his great friend Bush. There could not possibly be a better stage for an Israeli leader than during an American election year when the incumbent president craves Jewish support. Israeli officials proposed a Sharon appearance before a joint session of Congress. Alas, the prime minister had to call off the visit. Less than a month after his most successful encounter ever with Bush, he has nothing new to tell him.

Instead of exchanging flatteries with the American president, Sharon was forced to begin a long session of "consultations" with his ministers. He holds most of them in only modest esteem, but having ignored them before the referendum, he has to bring them on board now. Such is the price of political hubris. In Sunday's cabinet session, Sharon pledged to come up with an updated plan in three weeks. In the meantime he will try to amend the plan, hoping to win over some opposing ministers and create a slim majority.

This is no easy mission. The key Likud leaders, headed by treasury minister Benyamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, have vowed to abide by the referendum's outcome: They reject cosmetic changes in the plan and demand that it be shelved. Sharon, however, is reluctant to start from scratch. Last Thursday he told a group of E.U. ambassadors that he would stick to the main components of the previous plan. His aides say that any plan must be based on removing all settlements from Gaza, and four more in the West Bank, just as in the rejected version.

Sharon's entanglement converges with Bush's double trouble in the Middle East. The Arab world exploded in rage last month after the president, in a letter to Sharon, promised to support Israel's positions on borders and refugees in future Israeli-Palestinian final-status talks. Such talks seem like a fairy tale in the current strategic and political environment, where Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other. To soften the impact, Bush had used carefully crafted, somewhat ambiguous diplomatic lingo. Nevertheless, given the zero-sum nature of Middle East diplomacy, both Israelis and Arabs viewed the president's message as a clear tilt toward Sharon's policies. Then came the photographed evidence of torture in Iraq's American-operated prisons, further weakening Bush's already dismal position in the Arab world.

The administration had to appease the Arabs, but couldn't do it at Israel's expense during a tight presidential race, in which neither candidate can afford to be perceived as not supporting Israel. The 2004 election is no different from previous ones: Every four years, Israel's American friends extract pledges of political, military and economic support for the Jewish state. This has been an American tradition since 1948, when President Harry Truman decided to recognize the newly proclaimed state of Israel against the State Department's advice.

Bush tried to extricate himself from the morass by placating the Arabs with nice words, while not abandoning his promises to Sharon. The president announced a resumption of high-level contact with the Palestinian Authority, which Sharon's unilateral plan has all but taken out of the picture. He also repeated his support for an eventual Palestinian state, but shook off the proposed deadline of such statehood in 2005, as set forth in the "road map" -- the official peace plan backed by the "Quartet" of America, Europe, the U.N. and Russia.

Paradoxically, the lost referendum has brought new life to Sharon's plan in the international arena, where the key players have treated it with deep suspicion from the outset. Even the Bush administration needed several months of high-level consultations with Israel before it accepted the proposed unilateral "disengagement." All feared that Sharon planned a quid pro quo: Israel would shrug off the heavy burden of the overpopulated, resource-poor Gaza in return for a tightened grip over the coveted West Bank and East Jerusalem. Sharon had specifically asked Bush for, and received, an exemption from negotiations until the Palestinian leadership changed and fought terrorism -- a euphemism for political eternity.

Israeli officials predicted, however, that if Sharon lost, the international community would immediately appropriate his plan and demand its implementation. This is exactly what happened last week, with the United States leading the way in selling the withdrawal as a historic breakthrough. Back in Jerusalem, senior Israeli officials realized that there is no turning back. For the Americans and their Arab, European and Russian partners, Israeli party politics are irrelevant: Sharon promised a withdrawal, a major break in the bloody status quo, and he must deliver.

As for Bush, he has less room than usual to placate Sharon. He has already given the Israeli leader a nice advance payment, taking considerable Arab heat for his show of support. Even in an election year, he cannot accept a gutted deal in return.

Sharon lost because he didn't take his adversaries seriously -- an unlikely mistake for an old warrior. His opponents ran a very effective campaign against the removal of settlements, extolling the personal sacrifice of the Gaza settlers and trumpeting a "no reward for terrorism" message that appealed to security-minded Likud hard-liners. Leaders of the opposition reached most of Likud's 200,000 members, filled the country with anti-disengagement signs, and recruited rabbis to influence religious voters. Sharon, on the other hand, refrained from active campaigning. He believed, wrongly as it turned out, that support from Bush and massive media presence would suffice to assure him victory. Ten days before the referendum, the polls indicated a possible loss. The tide had obviously turned, but nobody predicted Sharon's landslide defeat (he lost by 20 percent).

These tactical explanations give only part of the picture, however. There are deeper political meanings to the Likud referendum. Sharon is only the latest in a long list of prime ministers who tried to break away from their pre-election pledges and to compromise with the Palestinians or Syria. All met an impassable political block, losing their support base or their job or both. In Israel, as in America and elsewhere, a candidate must appeal to the swing votes in the political center to win an election. In Israel, this means taking a moderate hard line toward the Arabs while expressing a vague willingness to compromise. Once in office, however, the prime minister has to contend with the political reality that many voters are loath to accept significant changes in Israel's position toward its adversaries. To justify proposed compromises, Israel leaders usually cite "the national interest" and relations with the White House, but they inevitably face coalition defections or a rebellion within their own party. These are the "checks and balances" of Israeli democracy: The parliament and party system -- which gives the minority a disproportionate influence -- restrains the prime minister's freedom of action.

It happened to Yitzhak Shamir, after he surrendered to American pressure and went to the Madrid peace conference in late 1991; to Yitzhak Rabin, who tried to trade the Golan for peace with Syria and backed off in 1994; to Netanyahu, after his Wye accord with Yasser Arafat in 1998; and to Ehud Barak, with his failed final-status talks with Arafat in 2000. Like Sharon, Barak harnessed the American president, Bill Clinton, to his grandiose designs, but failed to keep his political support base at home. Barak was able to convince the Israeli and American publics that Arafat was to blame for the failure, thus freeing the Israeli leader from having to deal with the domestic reaction to his possible peace plan. But Sharon proposed a unilateral plan, overlooking the Palestinians, and thus could not blame them for the failure.

From the other side, Sharon's opponents, led by the hard-line ministers Uzi Landau, Natan Sharansky and Yisrael Katz, praise themselves for their political and moral clarity. Landau talks about vague concessions in some future deal, but says that the war against the Palestinians must be won first. In his eyes, anything less will amount to rewarding the terrorists. At the most, Landau is ready to tacitly accept the removal of illegal "settlement outposts": Sharon promised Bush he would remove them long ago but has been reluctant to act.

Sharon made another arrogant mistake: He went to the polls without a backup plan. As a result, he found himself lacking a clear agenda in the first post-referendum days. True to form, Israel's media was filled with trial balloons and outright nonsense, from "mini disengagement" and "gradual implementation" to a highly complicated "regional" deal, in which Egypt would donate land to expand the crowded Gaza Strip, in exchange for a smaller Israeli area, including a tunnel to Jordan. It took Sharon several days to regroup, take control, and declare his adherence to the beaten plan.

Many times through his long military and political career, Sharon has found a way out of devastating trouble, always coming back stronger than before. Once again, Sharon is fighting uphill, seeking the weak spot in the enemy's defenses. Can he repeat the trick one more time? The answer depends on several factors. His adversaries don't want to oust him but merely keep him weakened. They must show some victors' generosity, to allow him some room to maneuver, lest their victory turns out to be Pyrrhic and arouse public anger. After all, most Israelis support the withdrawal from Gaza. Netanyahu, the key to the Cabinet's support, started his bargaining with Sharon on Sunday with a tough opening position, which he also made public: "one doesn't exchange plans like socks."

The country is also waiting for the attorney general's decision whether to indict Sharon for bribery. Leaks indicate that the case will be closed, which would strengthen Sharon's position, at least until another investigation over illegal campaign money deals is concluded.

In the previous round, which failed, Sharon tried to work from the outside in, first finding the minimum withdrawal that would be acceptable to Washington and then selling it at home. This time, he will have to work from the inside out, hammering out an agreement with his ministers before again calling on the weary Bush. Sharon must once again find a bridge between his party's positions and his strong friendship with Bush. This task is not necessarily impossible, but it has never appeared harder.

Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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