Disengagement Turns Israeli Politics Upside Down

JERUSALEM – Israel has been gripped by disengagement fever since the opening of the winter session of Parliament, the Knesset, last week. In a few days lawmakers will have to vote on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposal to withdraw the army from the Gaza Strip and dismantle all settlements there, as well as four in the north of the West Bank.

The debate, though, is sharply domestic in contrast with the way the plan is regarded in the rest of the world, where the consequences for the peace process are the focus. In Israel, very few people still believe in a peace process in the short term. The mantra that there is no Palestinian partner in the foreseeable future has become an article of faith, even among a considerable section of moderates.

That may explain why remarks by Dov Weisglass, one of Sharon’s senior advisers, that disengagement was meant to freeze the peace process and prevent indefinitely the founding of a Palestinian state, was so easily shrugged off by the main opposition Labour Party, which is to provide Sharon with parliamentary support for his plan.

Israelis are concerned primarily with scenarios such as the prospect of civil war, rabbis calling on soldiers to refuse orders, and settler leaders comparing the proposed evacuation of occupied territory to the Nazi atrocities of World War II.

Dire predictions of the security consequences of unilateral withdrawal still play a role in the right’s resistance against the plan. Over the last couple of weeks, the disengagement approach seems to have sparked an increase in violence on both sides in Gaza. Militant Palestinians want to show that Israel is "retreating under fire" while the government is determined to avoid that impression, and to show its backers that withdrawal does not mean it will stop fighting the militants.

The security situation is often subsumed by purely religious and nationalistic arguments. This can be seen at its most basic in the simple slogan of the settlers: "Don’t uproot Jews from their homes."

Sharon is facing increasing political pressure against the disengagement plan, even as the settlers failed last weekend to repeat their earlier more impressive popular mobilizations. A series of demonstrations were only sparsely attended. The main obstacle for Sharon was and still is his own Likud party.

A majority of its Knesset faction and most of its cabinet ministers are now demanding an unprecedented national referendum on the disengagement plan. Sharon is against it, saying it would delay the plan and dilute the power of the Knesset. He has vowed rather to go for early elections.

Sharon may well be sincere in saying he does not want unnecessary delays, but he may also be worried about the outcome of a referendum. Opinion polls show that a comfortable majority supports the pullback from Gaza but polls have not been a guarantee in the past.

Earlier this year Sharon was humiliated in a largely symbolic poll among the membership of his own party. Initially, it had seemed he was cruising toward victory, but the right and the settlers proved adept at mobilizing an anti-disengagement vote.

Sharon seems to consider the Knesset his best bet. With the support of as little as half the members of his own party, he may be able to push through the necessary legislation. Labour is likely to support him, reasoning that any withdrawal from Gaza is worth it.

But some smaller left-wing and Arab parties have actually announced they may vote against the plan because they distrust Sharon’s intentions.

The statement by Weisglass plays an important part in that decision. Sharon’s stated objective for as long as he has been prime minister has been to give the Palestinians no more than 40 percent of the West Bank as a "long-term interim solution." Weisglass’ remarks are consistent with that vision.

One of the reasons Sharon is eager to push the disengagement plan through against the wishes of his own party is probably the position of the current U.S. administration. He seems to bet on President George Bush being reelected.

Earlier this year, in an ultimately vain attempt to bolster Sharon ahead of the poll in his Likud party, Bush changed long-standing official U.S. policy and for the first time said "reality on the ground" dictated that some settlement areas remain under Israeli control after a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

The U.S. administration may not intend the disengagement plan to lead to further delays in the peace process, but it is such assurances that may lead Sharon to think he can achieve exactly that.

The European Union has recognized that the disengagement plan may be the end rather than the beginning of a new peace process. Earlier this month its ministers of foreign affairs said disengagement could not replace the roadmap – the defunct international peace plan – and a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Palestinians, while welcoming a withdrawal, have from the beginning suspected that Sharon’s plan was to give up Gaza in order to strengthen Israel’s hold over the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority has said it will not consider Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza an end to occupation. Under the plan, the borders, sea and airspace would still be controlled by Israel. The Oslo agreement makes Gaza and the West Bank one political unit.

Militant Palestinian groups in Gaza are also determined to sabotage the disengagement plan. They are not interested in an easing of the confrontation with Israel.

But moderate Palestinians and left-wing Israelis still support the plan not because they trust Sharon or believe in unilateral steps, but first because any withdrawal from Palestinian territory should be welcomed, and secondly because such steps may create their own dynamic unintended by anybody involved. If you start withdrawing from some occupied territories, what justification remains for holding on to the rest?