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What started out as the prime minister's last minute decision to obtain the endorsement of the Likud membership for his plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gush Katif and northern Samaria - an endorsement that he could not obtain from the delegates to the Likud's conference - has, within a matter of weeks, grown into a minor earthquake. According to the prime minister and his spokesmen, if the plan is not approved by the Likud membership in the May 2 referendum, the government is liable to fall, the president of the United States is likely to turn his back on Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians might exercise "the right of return" and the continued existence of major settlement blocs of Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel will be endangered.

That's certainly not what the prime minister had in mind when he came up with the idea of unilateral withdrawal and when he dispatched the director-general of his office to Washington to convince Bush's team that this plan was going to be good for Israel, the peace process and the U.S. as well.That was not foreseen when a decision to hold a referendum among Likud members was unceremoniously, and as it turned out improperly, railroaded through the Likud conference on March 30. So here we have it again - the law of unintended consequences.

Now it's up to the 195,000 Likud members throughout the country. Is this plan good for the country? Will its rejection bring down the government and cause a rift between the U.S. and Israel?

First, some of the fog surrounding the question at issue needs to be dispelled. We will not be disengaging from Gaza if the plan is implemented. That we did almost 12 years ago in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Before that the Israel Defense Forces was really in Gaza - in the city of Gaza, the Jabalya refugee camp, Dir al-Balah, Khan Yunis, the whole lot. Nowadays the IDF enters certain locations in the Gaza Strip temporarily as part of its combat against Palestinian terror, and presumably will continue to do so after the "disengagement." What is being proposed is that Israel uproot the Israeli settlements in Gush Katif and at the northern tip of the Gaza Strip, settlements that are relatively isolated from the Palestinian population in Gaza. It is a unilateral withdrawal, pure and simple. So the question is whether a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, at this stage of the Palestinian war of terror against Israel, is wise or not. After having scored significant successes against Palestinian terrorists during the past two years and substantially decreased the incidence of acts of terror, one might ask why provide encouragement to these terrorists by such a withdrawal, just when voices are being heard among the Palestinians that acts of terror are leading them nowhere? There is little doubt that the terrorists will see the withdrawal as a victory for them, and this will reinforce their intention to commit additional acts of terror. There was good reason why our prime minister and President Bush have been insisting that the dismantlement of the terrorist infrastructure be an essential precondition to any further steps. So what has changed?

Will rejection of the plan by the Likud membership cause a rift with the U.S.? Such a suggestion completely underestimates the strength and solidity of the U.S.-Israel relationship - a relationship based on common ideals, common values and common interests. Under no circumstances, and certainly not when facing a tough election, would the president of the U.S. be looking for a quarrel with Israel.

Nor is the government likely to fall. The present government is the most stable government that Israel has had in a long time. A coalition built around 40 Likud MKs is as solid as they come. Add to that the requirement for a "constructive non-confidence motion," which was passed into law together with the abolition of the "direct election of the Prime Minister" law, and it is difficult to see how this government is not going to complete its full term.

So Likudniks can go to the polls on May 2, unencumbered by irrelevant considerations, considering only the central question: Is a unilateral withdrawal likely to encourage Palestinian terrorists? The answer seems obvious.