The prime minister's unilateral disengagement plan is hailed by many as a step of great historic importance - a golden opportunity of sufficient importance to have warranted the break-up of the most stable coalition Israel had seen in years and raise the specter of early elections if an alternate coalition is not formed quickly.
Strangely enough, both Shinui, which has just been kicked out of the government by the prime minister, and the Labor Party, eager to take its place, insist that the unilateral disengagement plan is the most important item on Israel's agenda at this time.
Tommy Lapid, the Shinui leader, has only himself to blame for the latest developments. Not satisfied with the political plums his party had achieved in the wake of the last elections and the reforms the government was carrying out, he began insisting during the past year that the continued participation of Shinui in the coalition was conditioned on diplomatic initiatives to be taken by the government that should improve the chances of a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.
Lapid enthusiastically embraced Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, knowing full well that its adoption by the government would lead to the break-up of the existing coalition. But whereas he expected that this would lead to the Labor Party joining Shinui in a new coalition with the Likud, he now finds that Labor is likely to replace Shinui in the new coalition, to which United Torah Judaism, and possibly Shas, will have to be added. He was not prepared to pay that price, so out he went.
The Labor Party seems to be prepared to pay any price to join the new coalition. "Narrow political considerations" are to be sacrificed on the altar of peace. Shimon Peres is even prepared to commit Labor to continuing in the government after the unilateral disengagement has been executed. Does this sound suspicious? He and his comrades make no bones about it - for them uprooting the settlements in Gush Katif and northern Samaria is only the beginning. They expect that once this snowball has begun rolling downhill it will gather momentum, and the new coalition, rid of its "extremist" elements, will be either prepared to go along or else unable to stop it. You won't be able to accuse them of false pretenses.
And the other potential partners for the new coalition, UTJ and Shas? They need to be paid in other coin. No false pretenses here. As far as they are concerned, this unilateral disengagement plan is scheduled for some future date and may never come off, while their needs are of the present. And the Likud, straining to form this new coalition, presumably is dedicated to the unilateral disengagement plan? For some in the Likud anything is better than the alternative of early elections held out by the prime minister - even the unilateral disengagement plan.
All the potential partners in this coalition will be seeking different goals. Not much glue is going to hold them together. Is this cumbersome structure going to be able to carry through the uprooting of the settlements in Gush Katif and northern Samaria over the opposition of much of the nation?
But the real question is whether this is not just an exercise in futility. Arafat, the man declared so many times to be irrelevant, is gone. It turns out that he was not that irrelevant. Everyone is now convinced that his disappearance from the scene may bring about a major change in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Under these circumstances, does it make any sense to continue to plan for unilateral withdrawals? Would it not be wiser to wait and see who the new Palestinian leadership is going to be and whether with them the road may be opened to negotiations?
It may be that unilateral steps at this juncture could actually turn out to be counter-productive. "Don't confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up" may not be the wisest counsel at this time.
It certainly seems that a reappraisal of the situation is in order. After all the dramatic political announcements, and the record number of ministers who have been fired from the government, it will take a great deal of courage to do that.
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