No Go

What does Sharon’s referendum defeat mean for Middle East peace?


On Monday, Israeli settlers were already laying the cornerstone for three acres of new homes in the Gaza Strip, having taken Ariel Sharon’s failure to get support from Likud members for his plan to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank as a green light.

One Gaza community, known to Jewish residents as “Palm Beach East” sounds like a hard place to leave, the way Judy Lash Belint describes the subdivisions built near the ruins of a seventh-century synagogue:

Driving between the villages through the sand dunes, with picture-perfect glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea and stately tall palm trees dotted all around it’s hard to believe that this is a place that experiences regular shelling or any kind of violence.

Sharon, nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his single-mindedness, had for decades endorsed and even administered efforts by Jewish fundamentalists to found and populate such developments. That’s why his February announcement that he would remove Jews from the entire Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank so shocked both supporters and critics.

Sharon was betting on a victory. He even won approval from Washington last month. In a policy shift criticized by Arab leaders and others as pandering to Israel, President George W. Bush backed the plan. American foreign policy at least ostensibly has followed the peace “road map” that would create a two-state solution built on a negotiated compromise between Palestinian and Israeli interests.

Yet many Palestinians viewed Sharon’s recent campaign as a veiled land grab. And, to their mind, Bush abandoned their interests by neither insisting that Israel respect pre-1967 borders nor demanding that Arabs be allowed to return to homes evacuated within Israel. Now, both Bush and Sharon must live with the consequences of their pact.

Pre-referendum polls in Israel predicted a win for Sharon, who hadn’t bargained for election-day violence. Palestinian gunmen slayed a pregnant Jewish settler and her four young daughters on their way to a polling place Sunday. The close-range killings may have boosted those 60 percent of 193,000 Likud members who rejected Sharon’s bid.

Sharon has presented the evacuation as a means of shielding Israeli settlers from Palestinian violence. Instead, the murders motivated those residents to stand their ground and reject what they viewed as Sharon’s betrayal of their birthright to Biblical territories.

The Economist explains Sharon’s fragile standing at home:

Mr Sharon must now be wondering why he held the vote when there was no need to-he could have gone straight to the cabinet and the parliament for approval. Opponents of the Gaza pull-out were highly effective in marshalling support in the days before the vote. The isolation of Sharon supporters in the field contrasted starkly with the phalanx of settler and ultra-nationalist volunteers, from within and beyond Likud, who launched a massive and highly emotional campaign. Israel’s towns and villages were plastered with posters declaring settlement withdrawal to be no less than “treachery”. Harassment of Sharon supporters at many polling stations did not help the “yes” camp either.

What’s next? Rather than give up entirely, Sharon reportedly wants to soften the plan with piecemeal Jewish withdrawals from contested areas, pushing the altered blueprint through the parliament and cabinet (likely at great political cost). However, a limited withdrawal would stop short of Bush’s expectation for a total evacuation.

Glen Kessler of the Washington Post describes the outcome as an embarrassment for Bush:

The tilt toward Israel will not soon be forgotten by the Arab world, but it will be harder for the administration to claim that Bush’s support of Sharon has made a difference. Moreover, the Likud vote comes when the image of the United States is already greatly damaged by accounts of psychological and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some U.S. soldiers.

The Economist predicts the results of Sharon’s shifting tactics within his Likud party:

The party is now officially at odds with Mr Sharon, who was instrumental in its creation in the 1970s. It is also at odds with the electorate as a whole, which is increasingly desperate to see an end to the violent stalemate with the Palestinians. Some analysts have suggested that the Likud members’ rejection of the disengagement plan could mark the beginning of the party’s marginalisation. It could also encourage Mr Sharon’s antagonists within Likud, particularly Binyamin Netanyahu, the finance minister and a former prime minister, to try to unseat their leader.

Certainly, Mr Sharon will have to be especially deft in maneuvering (sic) his way out of his tactical error in calling for the vote. And he will have to do this while wrestling with other problems, such as a corruption scandal that may yet lead to bribery charges being brought against him.

The Age of Australia foresees Sharon possibly continuing as a “lame duck” leader with a split party. The Israeli economy could lose confidence and drag over the long-term if Sharon loses control of his own party.

The Arab News doesn’t view Sharon’s defeat as an insurmountable obstacle for the stubborn leader:

The withdrawal proposal does not, as some suggest, mark a drastic departure for Sharon, the foremost champion of settlement expansion. Indeed, losing Gaza is no sacrifice at all. Gaza is a wretched scrub of land, a security nightmare for Israel, which does not have the resources to cope with its 1.3 million Palestinian inhabitants.

No matter how the Gaza plan fares, Sharon says he will not quit. That means the man who perpetuated the uprising – in fact helped start it – built the wall of separation, assassinated top Palestinian officials, extracted from a US president unprecedented concessions and now is in the midst of taking unilateral decisions on behalf of the Palestinians, is a reality the Palestinians, and with them the whole Middle East, will have to deal with for a long time to come.

Some analysts worry that Sharon, a “wounded animal,” will lash out with more violent attacks in Palestinian regions and even a possible strike on Yasser Arafat to cap the recent string of Hamas assassinations.

Amit Cohen of Israel’s Maariv newspaper foresees a continued impasse that will harden Palestinian rebels:

In the Mukata, Arafat can breathe a sigh of relief. Rejection of the disengagement plan will perpetuate the deadlock that is so important to him. If the plan were implemented, the Palestinian Authority would have to do something. Now it can avoid making decisions.

From the Palestinian perspective, unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would be a nightmare that prevents them from establishing an independent state. If Israel were to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and a few settlements in Judea and Samaria while continuing to build the anti-terrorism barrier, it would still maintain practical control over half of Judea and Samaria.

Simultaneously, the terrorist organizations can say, “We told you so” and claim that Jihad is the only way to get Israel out of the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post tracked the mood around Gaza’s Gush Katif block, where settlers who beat Sharon this weekend seemed bereft of victory:

The vacuum of jubilation matched the emptiness of this strip of seaside settlements Sunday. By mid-afternoon, just a few hours after the terrorist attack, it seemed that the settlement had already been evacuated.