Analysis: A historic decision… for now

By David Horovitz October 27, 2004

The political battle over disengagement is not yet over

It was indeed a landmark decision – a vote by the Knesset that is intended by its champions to lead to the unprecedented dismantling of settlements outside the context of a peace treaty.

On the surface, it reflects a conclusion by the majority of the Knesset’s 120 legislators that, no matter where the Palestinians and their leadership are heading, Israel’s own interests are no longer served by having the army deployed, and a relatively small number of Jews living, in the midst of the Gaza Strip’s overwhelming mass of Palestinians.

The prime considerations: how best to safeguard the security of as many Israelis as possible, and how best to offset the impact of a demographic process that is rapidly eroding the Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

On the surface. At the same time, however, the ‘symbolic,’ even ‘historic,’ value of Tuesday’s Knesset decision is being widely discussed precisely because, in terms of practical implications, it is plain that the political battle over disengagement is not yet over. This was an in-principle approval of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement initiative – his intention to empty the Strip and a small area of the northern West Bank of soldiers and settlers.

Legislation on the practicalities of disengagement has only just begun its long route to full approval – with the first-stage, cabinet adoption on Sunday of the disengagement implementation bill. In addition, cabinet votes will yet be required to dismantle specific settlements.

And it is only over the course of that complex and protracted process that we will ascertain whether Ariel Sharon, and disengagement, can truly muster the support necessary to ‘salvage the Zionist enterprise,’ as former justice and finance minister Dan Meridor, encapsulating the advocates’ assertion of what is at stake, put it in a TV interview on Tuesday.

Several of the leading Likud politicians who milled around the entrance to the plenum before entering, at the last possible moment, to vote with the prime minister, and even one or two of those who sat more staunchly by his side, have previously expressed outright opposition to the plan. They chose not to make that opposition irrevocable on Tuesday because of other considerations – including matters of timing and tactics.

But the votes of these and some of the other Likud politicians who contributed to Sharon’s unexpectedly wide majority will evaporate, at one stage or another of the approval process, should they determine that a mix of ambition, principle, and their sense of public mood and prime ministerial vulnerability necessitate a direct challenge to Sharon.

The prime minister has reasonable options for alternative coalitions if even a sizable chunk of the Likud turns firmly against him. But the long-term stability of any such constellations is questionable. And the climate of public opposition, with the party of government riven, can only grow more fraught with danger.

Most potent of the potential opponents, of course, is Binyamin Netanyahu, who elected not to challenge Sharon to fire him by voting against the plan on Tuesday, and opted instead during the day to again talk up the virtues of a referendum. Netanyahu knows he still has many opportunities, should he so desire, to try and derail the prime minister’s program.

In fact, the next such opportunity is just two weeks away, when time theoretically runs out on the National Religious Party’s pledge to quit the coalition if Sharon does not consent – and he is broadcasting a determination not to consent – to a national referendum. The reluctantly voting ministers – Netanyahu, Limor Livnat, Yisrael Katz, and Dan Naveh – could decide to use that as their jumping- off point for the confrontation with the prime minister they chose to eschew on Tuesday. Talking tough after backing down, indeed, Netanyahu late Tuesday was adamant that he, too, would leave the government if Sharon does not bow to the dictates of the NRP’s guiding rabbis. And yet, two weeks is a very, very, long time in Israeli politics…

From the Knesset podium on Monday, Sharon declared that he had ‘never faced as difficult a decision’ as the one to advocate unilateral withdrawal, but that ‘wisdom and responsibility’ now obligate him to follow his reversed assessment of Israel’s existential interests, and so to press for the relocation of the very people he sent to the Gaza settlements.

For him, plainly, the way ahead has been decisively selected. For him, the moment of truth has passed. But that is emphatically not the case for at least some of those who voted with him on Tuesday. And that means that when we ask the crucial question – does Tuesday’s night’s vote mean that a year from now there will be no settlements in Gaza? – the answer is still: We don’t know.

© The Jerusalem Post