The Likud ministers who are due to meet today with the prime minister to hear the details of his disengagement plan, so they can lend their support, need to be well aware of what is at stake: nothing less than his political fate, the future of his government and his ability to continue to rely on U.S. President George Bush's support.
Ariel Sharon has become embroiled in a far-reaching political initiative, one that has registered close to 10 on the Richter scale. It has caused profound upheaval across the political spectrum in Israel and its echoes can be heard in the major capitals of the world, especially Washington.
Speaking last week in the Knesset, Sharon took pains to stress that the plan was the outcome of much soul-searching, and that the process of its crystallization into an official political move was an extremely orderly affair.
The Likud ministers would be well-advised to consider that this was, in fact, frightening incompetence in terms of the conduct of state affairs. It could be described (with a title taken from a recently published cookbook) as "Sharon (or Dov Weisglass) burned the porridge."
Sharon (or Weisglass) created an irreversible fact - readiness to give up the Gaza Strip - without reckoning the cost and without leaving any bargaining chips in their hands that could improve their position during negotiations. They devised a plan based on the expectation of recompense from the United Sates, which has no intention of providing this: Bush and his administration will certainly not support the Israeli demand to recognize its right to relocate in, and develop, settlement blocs in the West Bank in return for a Gaza withdrawal. This expectation is also unrealistic because it runs counter to the principle held by the U.S. that it will not support a move that will determine the future image of a final settlement, and also because of the size of the settlement blocs envisaged by Sharon.
Moreover the disengagement plan is based on the assumption that it will bring pressure to bear on the Palestinians since it puts off a permanent agreement and aims at solidifying a long-term interim arrangement. This expectation will likewise not stand the test of reality: Very influential parts of the Palestinian public - the rejectionist groups and, according to Israeli intelligence assessments, Yasser Arafat himself - have a joint interest in avoiding negotiations with Israel over a permanent agreement because their aim is to continue to spill blood, and some of them even negate Israel's very existence.
This is why the reality likely to emerge from the disengagement plan will grant those on the Palestinian side who oppose an agreement, unlimited veto power.
Nevertheless, it would still be best for the Likud ministers today to support Sharon's initiative, both because it is in the state's interest to maintain the advantage inherent in the readiness to withdraw from the entire Gaza Strip and change the status quo, and also because this is their own, and the prime minister's, most urgent political interest.
Weisglass is due to go to Washington at the beginning of the week to present the Bush administration with the updated version of the plan and to assess to what extent it is applicable. There is a tremendous gap between the American expectations concerning the extent of the withdrawal from West Bank settlements, and the Likud ministers' readiness to approve this. If the Likud ministers do not have the sense to equip Sharon's emissary with a formula that ensures a significant Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank, too, they will thwart any chance that the Americans will reciprocate for his readiness to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip. In this way they will pull the rug out from under their leader's feet since the initiative relies on the assumption that he will be able to get American agreement to this type of exchange deal.
Moreover, the Americans' very acquiescence to being involved in any way in Sharon's initiative is conditional on his ability to prove that he can get support for it from the government and Knesset. If Weisglass comes to Washington against a background of the Likud ministers' refusing to support Sharon, his mission will be doomed to failure.
It is therefore best for the Likud ministers to approve Sharon's initiative today, despite its weaknesses, if they wish to ensure that his government remains in power.
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