Editor’s Notes: The prime minister’s missed opportunity

By David Horovitz October 15, 2004

What you should have done, Mr. Prime Minister, was hold a national referendum on disengagement

Why, Mr. Prime Minister, didn’t you ask the people?

We know you came up with the whole disengagement idea pretty much on the run, in a panic because of the international momentum Yossi Beilin’s Geneva Accord was gathering. We know that you really weren’t even thinking of Gaza at all when you first unveiled it, concentrating instead on pulling back behind what you called ‘more efficient’ security lines in the West Bank.

But how could you have miscalculated so spectacularly about the opposition you’d run into? You’re supposed to be the master tactician, the oh-so-astute navigator who has time and again defied those who like to write you off.

The opinion polls told you week in, week out that a strong majority of your country folk trusted your judgment and were ready to back you in a unilateral pullout. But rather than give that public the chance to prove that support, you polled your own Likud members, bizarrely opting for one of the forums least likely to look favorably on your radical political transformation.

Then you stirred your opponents up some more, quite unnecessarily, by booting two ministers out of your cabinet because they were about to vote against disengagement, even though you had a majority locked up.
Next you dispatched one of the very few of your aides with the lawyerly good sense to generally to keep his mouth shut, and ordered him to unleash an entirely uncharacteristic verbal torrent to the effect that disengagement is basically a ruse – a relatively minor relinquishing of territory, freeing Israel of the burden of Gaza’s Palestinians while simultaneously killing off any prospect of negotiated progress toward a permanent accord. Evidently, you gave little thought as to how Dov Weisglass’s ‘disengagement equals road-map formaldehyde’ formula would affect your credibility. And you took your unreconstructed rightist critics for fools if you believed they’d be appeased by the Weisglass wink.

And then you trumped all that this week by managing to unite Right and Left in their distaste for your miscalculated statement at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session, conjuring yet another unnecessary defeat.

You may yet muddle through. Plainly, the current coalition has little life left in it. You acknowledged yesterday that you now head a minority government, requiring you to frantically cobble together different constellations of Knesset factions for different rafts of legislation. And calling new elections wouldn’t be so simple either, what with many of today’s Knesset members distinctly reluctant to unglue themselves from their seats. What’s more, given your current low standing with your own party’s central committee, the forum that chooses the Likud Knesset slate, it’s a safe bet you’d have an even more rebellious bunch on your hands after election day than you have right now. Still, you might be able to put together a different coalition, if the various relatively petty rivalries about who won’t sit to next to whom can be put aside.

But what you should have done, Arik, was hold a national referendum. No, we’ve not held them in the past. No, there was no referendum on settling Gaza in the first place. Yes, it would have taken time and money, and there would have been arguments about the wording and the required majority for victory. And yes, in our democracy, parliament is sovereign and you can implement your policies so long as you can muster the necessary parliamentary support, and it’s up to your critics to garner sufficient Knesset votes to bring you down.

But think of the legitimacy it would have granted you: the transformed prime minister honorably returning to his people to confirm his sense that they endorse his new path.

For all your restated insistence yesterday that the idea is inconceivable, you may yet be forced down the referendum road; erstwhile full-speed-ahead supporters of the pullout are starting to come round to the idea. But my sense is that it’s too late now.

Most Likud opponents of disengagement fully expected to lose in May’s referendum; the opinion polls assured them they would. But they mobilized and fund-raised and leafleted and demonstrated and knocked on doors. And you did nothing. So they won.

And they’re mobilized and funded again now. (Just look at last night’s latest installment in the ongoing series of rallies and demonstrations. Or drive past the billboards everywhere, including the military complex in Tel Aviv, to see the latest posters: ‘Commander, We’re Jewish… This, We Cannot Do.’) And they’re certain, absolutely, 100 percent, unwaveringly certain that their cause is just and that yours is misguided.

Whereas your passionate supporters… Well, who exactly are your passionate supporters? Who has fired up the ranks of this presumed majority of Israelis to ensure that they would turn out in their masses to support disengagement? You certainly haven’t. You really haven’t told us how this pullout is supposed to work, what’s going to happen the day after, quite how our security situation will be improved. There are compelling arguments to be made about improving the demographic balance, about restoring Israel’s devastated international legitimacy. But you haven’t made them. ‘Isn’t it just a case of throwing a rock into the water, just to get something to happen?’ a perfectly savvy visiting foreign journalistic friend mused to me this week.

Thanks to Weisglass, much of the Left wonders afresh whether you’re conning them. And though large chunks of the mainstream carry no particular torch for Gaza’s settlers, they are not left cold by the settlers’ anguish at being forced to leave. That mainstream may not want its soldier children serving in the Strip and may recognize the pragmatism of shedding responsibility for the 1.3 million Arab Gazans, but many also recognize the logic of those critics who describe a unilateral pullout as a victory for terrorism that will invite more attacks. And many wonder how the intended Lebanon border parallel is going to play out in Gaza: Hizbullah may be deterred from rocketing the North because the Syrian government rightly fears reciprocal Israeli air strikes on Damascus. But there will no stable Palestinian government in Gaza to try and rein in the Kassam squads, no central authority with anything to lose.

In the last elections for the Jerusalem mayoralty, many residents of the city, perhaps most, may have been none too pleased by the prospect of a first ultra-Orthodox mayor. But Uri Lupolianski’s supporters were passionate and motivated in support of their man. Come election day, some of the malcontents voted, and plenty didn’t. But all of Lupolianski’s supporters made sure they got to the polling stations.

So it would be in the context of a disengagement referendum today. Some of those who basically favor a pullout would schlep down to vote, and plenty wouldn’t. But you can be sure that every last one of your opponents would cast their ballots.

Like I said, you might muddle through anyway. But you’ve never looked more vulnerable. And that’s going to deter international players, and especially the Egyptians, whose cooperation you’re going to need to make the pullout work. What’s more, if you’re going to be asking the army, which hasn’t managed to dismantle a single substantially populated illegal outpost without the cooperation of settler leaders, to pull people out of their homes, you’re going to need the kind of stable coalition it’s hard to see you finding.

Israel will implement disengagement ‘according to its timetable… during 2005,’ you told the Knesset on Monday. Yesterday you specified a 12-week evacuation period next summer. Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t bank on it. And if it is carried out, it will be done in an atmosphere of greater internal confrontation than was necessary.

© The Jerusalem Post