Analysis / A Referendum on What, Exactly?

The idea of a national referendum on the disengagement, which was revived yesterday by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ostensibly solves several problems for Ariel Sharon.

The idea of a national referendum on the disengagement, which was revived yesterday by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ostensibly solves several problems for Ariel Sharon: it calms public tempers, it pacifies the Likud rebels, and it postpones the coalition crisis. Polls predict a landslide victory for Sharon. On the face of it, he has no worries - the people are with him. But, as they say, once bitten, twice shy.

After the catastrophic Likud referendum, Sharon is not so quick to heed advice from well-wishers. Particularly if their name is Netanyahu. The mutual distrust between these two has reached such a degree that even were Netanyahu to volunteer to drive the bulldozers across the villas of Gush Katif, Sharon's instinctive response would be: "What's he really after?"

Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz introduced the referendum idea a week ago in talks with fellow Likud ministers. Before Katz could publicize his initiative, Social Affairs Minister Zvulun Orlev rushed in and proposed it to Sharon. Orlev wanted to buy time, to delay the NRP's withdrawal from the government.

The issue quickly fizzled, and was re-introduced yesterday by Netanyahu in a meeting with reporters to mark the New Year. Netanyahu and his associates bent over backward to assure no plot underlay the proposal. "No tricks, no schticks," Netanyahu's confidants said, quoting that television entertainer who hawks cheap overseas call rates.

From Netanyahu's standpoint, this is a winning move whatever the result: If disengagement is approved by the people, Netanyahu won't stand in Sharon's way. On the contrary, he'll prefer becoming prime minister again after the evacuation. If Sharon fails, Netanyahu will be the immediate beneficiary. Leadership will fall into his hands like a ripe fruit. Politically, too, Netanyahu is treading on firm ground: he doesn't tangle with the right and he doesn't lose the Likud central committee members who support disengagement.

For Sharon this is more problematic. Nobody is promising speedy legislation, despite Netanyahu's statements yesterday. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said that a national referendum bill is a basic law requiring lengthy preparation, consultation with experienced countries, and thorough debates in the legislature.

Additionally, Sharon could come off looking in the eyes of the international community like he's trying to evade his commitment to implement the disengagement. To top it all, he'll find himself again in the hands of Netanyahu, Shalom and Limor. They'll vow to stand by him, but a single poll showing the gap narrowing and they'll vanish.

Besides, is his victory really guaranteed? What if the Arabs don't vote? What if the left stays home again? One Likud minister said that Sharon has been so traumatized by referenda, that even if he were offered to hold it at Sycamore Ranch he'd hesitate.

Netanyahu's solution is easy and convenient: Ask the public whether it is for or against the government's June 6 decision on a graduated disengagement. That alone is a mine ready to derail the whole process: who knows what the hell the government decided. Sharon and Olmert said after the dramatic meeting that the government decided on disengagement. Netanyahu, Shalom, Livnat, and Orlev of course said a decision was reached only on preparation for disengagement. So on what precisely will the public be asked to decide?