Upon his return to Israel from the Sharm el-Sheikh summit last week, Ariel Sharon stepped up the tone of his attacks on his rivals from the right. Strengthened by headlines about the end of the intifada and flattering weekend polls, Sharon pointed at the Yesha Council for the first time as the main factor responsible for spreading news about an impending "civil war" over the disengagement plan. Until then, Sharon had avoided a direct clash with the settler leadership and preferred to quietly gather political points. But after Sharm he chose to attack full front.
This is Israel's tragedy: The internal cohesion was preserved during the years of warring with the Palestinians, and Sharon enjoyed broad public support for his suppression of the intifada. When the terror subsided, he initiated the withdrawal from Gaza to remain in the political center.
But as the quiet continued on the Palestinian front, the battlefront with the right caught fire.
As an experienced general, Sharon knows that it's not good to fight on two fronts at the same time. The flanks should be protected, and the effort should be concentrated in the main front. That is the strategic significance of the Sharm summit - calming the conflict with the Palestinians until the evacuation of Neveh Dekalim, Netzarim and Kadim. While Mahmoud Abbas spoke about the road map, Sharon concentrated on the short term. He proposed a deal to Abbas. The Palestinian Authority will keep the quiet during the evacuation and get the keys to the settlements. Sharon's stick will be "a reaction unprecedented in its intensity" if the evacuation takes place under Palestinian fire. The carrot will be a generous freeing of prisoners, including some with "blood on their hands" in exchange for a peaceful disengagement. Abbas promised to do everything he could to make sure the settlers don't leave under fire.
The result was immediately apparent in the Israeli media. The day after the summit, Abbas and his colleagues were off the front pages, replaced with reports about incitement, violence and the danger on the right, photographs of threatening letters and warnings about political assassination. Sharon is trying to deny his rivals' public legitimacy, to shove them into the arms of the lunatic fringes, and with this, perhaps, defeat them without a real battle.
Next week he will take another step toward expelling the settlers, with the publication of Talia Sasson's report on the illegal outposts. The report will depict the outpost makers as outlaws and recommend strengthening the legislation and the law enforcement over the Green Line.
There's also an understanding in the American administration that the disengagement and the domestic crisis in Israel will be the top of the agenda. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice devoted her dinner with Sharon last Sunday to inquiring about the domestic situation. She asked about the intensity of the right-wing opposition and the difficulties of passing the budget. Sharon told her the disengagement would pass, but it would be difficult.
"The opposition is not only in the opposition but in my camp," Sharon explained to her. Rice made clear that the disengagement must take place according to the timetable. She took care with regard to questions about "civil war," said one of the guests at the dinner, but the danger hovered in the background of the conversation.
The coming weeks will be the greatest test of their leadership for both Sharon and the settler leaders. The verbal disagreement between them will turn more extreme the closer the evacuation approaches, and the chances of stopping it in the Knesset fade.
Will violence be inevitable?
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz believes that the settler leadership will behave responsibly. Maybe one or two crazies will try to harm soldiers involved in the evacuation and they will be dealt with appropriately. The rest will understand, he thinks, that violence will deny them their legitimacy. They know that after the withdrawal they will have to live in Israel and their children will serve in the army. The question is whether the extremists among them understand that, too.
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