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Reactions to Ariel Sharon's downfall in the disengagement referendum point up an interesting phenomenon: The shock over the results is more profound among those who do not belong to the Likud than among its members. And this reaction pertains not only to the object of the referendum and the failure of the disengagement plan, but mainly to the causes of the failure: the power of a few thousand settlers to force their will on millions of people - Israelis and Palestinians.

Indeed, there was no shortage of proof of the political might of the settler leaders and their manipulation skills. After all, they exerted decisive influence on political struggles related to the occupied territories throughout the `90s. Many people were astounded, nevertheless, at the magnitude of the power amassed by the hard core of activists with a messianic-clerical-rightist worldview; and particularly the colossal self-confidence they have acquired, which took them from organizing themselves in marginal right-wing groups to the domination of a mainstream political party that leads the government.

The incredulity was the result of denial and repression; after all, the settlers did not conceal their aims, or mask their strength. The attention of their political opponents was fixed on statistics about points on the map - "settlements," "outposts" and the number of inhabitants therein - and their effect on the "diplomatic process" ("an obstacle to peace"). But the strategic goals of the settlers - domination of the decision-making process vis-a-vis the future of the territories - was given little attention, and their pronouncements about "settling in people's hearts" were belittled. A full array of "dialogues," "common Zionist denominator" and campaigns to promote tolerance among diverse groups in Israeli society) helped to repress the threat, until the disengagement plan forced the settlers to reveal their strength, this time openly and purposefully. The repression and denial have been going on for decades.

Anyone who so desired could have taken seriously the warning voiced in 1983: "The Likud correctly assessed that the future of the territories would be decided in the domestic political establishment of Israel. It is therefore building a political lobby that includes residents of the suburbs (in the territories) ... One hundred thousand voters, sending four or five members of Knesset, could be an effective obstacle to any political program based on territorial compromise." But this warning, which was rebuffed with the disparaging contention that the situation was "irreversible," was rejected by those who chose to internalize only those processes that suited their wishes.

Since 1983, the number of settlers has increased to a quarter million (not including East Jerusalem) and the number of Knesset members representing them is double the number that was only dreamed about two decades ago. The state has given a small group of skilled and fanatic activists immense bureaucratic might and economic resources, which have been invested in a sophisticated manner and transformed the settlements into one of the strongest power bases in Israel. But even after proving their political prowess by their recent victory, their opponents continue to portray them as the "golem that turned on its creator" - in other words, the settlers are merely pawns in a game who suddenly went out of control, and whose owner must neutralize them, like the Golem of Prague. It is not they who are the golem, but rather those who decade after decade lightly dismissed the settlements, declaring that "their futures are behind them - any moment now, the occupation is going to be shut down."

Sharon's failure is indeed a stinging disgrace, but historical accuracy obliges us to say the truth: Paradoxically, his hour of disgrace is evidence of his victory. The man who took a good beating from the settlers is the same man that conceived and implemented the strategy of "the internal-political settlement of the Likud." It is he who gave his proteges the weapons that led to his downfall. Sharon's strategy succeeded yet again, as it has every time that someone proposed a compromise plan, and it is not the settlers' fault that this time Sharon chose to unleash a process of territorial concessions. Sharon learned the hard way that there is a limit to the arrogance of leaders that let the genie out of the bottle and are certain they can order the genie to go back in when they grow tired of having their sport with him.

The victory of the settlers is maddening and discouraging, but one can take comfort in the fact that it is too big; their attempt to take over the Likud and humiliate its leaders will not go unanswered. And mainly, it is simply not possible to hold onto Gush Katif for long; even the might of the settlers will not suffice. Their triumph will yet turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, and as great as their victory is, so too will be the magnitude of their defeat, as the refusal mounts to bring soldiers as sacrifices to the Moloch of Netazrim's defense. And maybe, the whole referendum and the very act of "disengagement" were a passing episode - because the processes of conflict and conciliation between Israel and the Palestinians cannot be one-sided.