Battle of the Ballot

The politicians and other speakers who took part in the anti-pullout rally in Sderot this week don't believe for a moment that the disengagement will be thwarted. They are already engaged in a different struggle over votes.

Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra's right hand was bleeding from a fairly deep wound, about a centimeter in diameter. A young medic was called in to help, and entered the lit tent of the police headquarters at the edge of the park in Sderot, where the rally of the right was under way. A short while earlier, on his way there, Ezra was surrounded by scores of demonstrators who shoved and shouted and called him a traitor. Trying to minimize the danger he faced, Ezra said the wound had not been caused during the incident but refused to say when, and how, he had acquired it. The medic cleaned, disinfected and bandaged it. Ezra did not blink an eye. "This is a population that knows what the limit is," he said of the near lynch. "They wouldn't have had any problem lifting a hand against me, but they didn't touch me."

Ezra's external appearance cold, indifferent, languid, like a kind of Warren Christopher of the Likud Central Committee is deceptive. In everyday life it is far colder, more indifferent and more languid. But he is blessed with healthy common sense. Under his inspiration and the leadership of Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi during the past weeks, the police have succeeded in conducting themselves vis-a-vis the Jewish settlers in the territories in a way that has earned the public's respect. However, his total support for the disengagement plan, his loyalty to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and the role that he is playing as the person responsible on behalf of the government for evacuating the settlers are not doing him any good in the Likud Central Committee. From ninth place on the current party list, he has dropped, according to internal surveys being held in the committee, to 15th place, with opponents of the disengagement ahead of him.

"Ultimately," Ezra says, "the members of the central committee will judge the people they vote for by their actions or inaction. I work around the clock for the sake of the State of Israel. There are people who work around the clock for the central committee."

Ezra's predecessor, Minister without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi, has said that had he not been compelled to resign from the ministry because of the police investigation against him, he might have left now so as not to be part of the evacuating force. When Ezra is asked whether he has similar feelings, he replies firmly: "No. I have no problem with this. The decision that the police will do the evacuation was made in Tzachi's day. The unilateral withdrawal is the best alternative for the Jewish people. A considerable part of the quiet we have had here in recent months is a result of the withdrawal."

Is there anything that can prevent the disengagement? "No," he replies.

What will happen if 150,000 people sit down along the road on the day of the evacuation? "They will be cleared out," he says.

Ezra is not a man of complex answers. He loses a bit of his serenity only when he hears Likud MK Uzi Landau begin to speak. "What does he want? Tell me what Uzi wants?" he turns to the person next to him at the table. "Why, up until two and a half years ago he was the minister of public security and I was his deputy. He knows how to behave with proper official dignity. What does he want? That the State of Israel should capitulate? That we inform the Americans and the world and the Palestinians that we aren't evacuating Gaza? That we fold up everything and announce that we are staying?"

Size is not everythingThere were no more than 20,000 people at the rally in Sderot and even this, according to Deputy Public Security Minister Yaakov Edri, "includes VAT and price increases." But size is not everything. The rally on Tuesday failed in two respects: first of all, the crowd. It was the same crowd: the Orthodox hard core, in some cases messianic, of religious Zionism. Nothing beyond that. Secondly, perhaps even more important, was the gallery of personalities that sat on the stage: not a single leader of national stature. Not a single person who is able to sweep up the public. Three Likud rebels, two "formers" (Menachem Porush and Moshe Arens) and three members of the "your way is our way" circle of the Likud Central Committee, Knesset members from the right and the ultra-Orthodox parties, and wheeler-dealers from Yesha (acronym for the territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza).

This is not the way to build a rift in the nation. Even culture was under-represented there: singer Ariel Zilber, novelist Eyal Megged and the Shas court singer Benny Elbaz, who sang, alternately, "This Won't Happen" and "He is Innocent." Sure, said one of the participants cynically, when he'll be innocent, this won't happen.

Not one of the speakers, and there were endless numbers of them, believes for a moment that the disengagement will be thwarted. Many of them had come there to fight not only for Gush Katif, but to wage a personal war for votes. The battle today is for the ballot. MK Effi Eitam, who resigned from the National Religious Party and will run against MK Rabbi Binyamin Elon for the chairmanship of the National Union, walked on eggshells in his speech. He knows that he must not go too far, and therefore confined himself to calling on the Lord of the Universe to lobby Sharon to prevent the evacuation.

MK Eli Yishai of Shas, accompanied by two members of his Knesset faction, and United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush, accompanied by his father, also game to garner votes. Each of them believes that he can get something out of this. Porush, who is fighting for his place in the Gur camp, wanted to prove to his rabbis that he has influence among this public, in this reservoir of votes. The elections are just around the corner, and politicians with healthy instincts don't miss an opportunity.

Only Natan Sharansky, who resigned from the government because of the disengagement and had his way to the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency blocked by the vengeful Sharon, had no compunctions about rebuking a number of demonstrators who held placards saying "Stalinism! Fascism!" You, said Sharansky, don't know what Stalinism is and what fascism is.

Phantom of the KnessetKnesset Speaker Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin knows the place very well - at the foot of the speakers' stage, in the depths, near the sound technicians, the crates of beverages and the usual gaping hangers-on. Ever since the birth of the disengagement plan, which he hates from the bottom of his heart, this has been the place reserved for Rivlin at the right's demonstrations. Never on the stage (after all, his official, representative function commits him to a certain kind of dignified behavior), but always with the protesters, in the status of absent-but-present. His name is mentioned by one of the speakers and the cheering crowd looks around for the Knesset speaker who is "here with us." But he is hiding in the shadows, protected by dozens of Shin Bet security service bodyguards and police deployed in unending circles. This is how he conducted himself at the rally at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and this is how he conducted himself on Tuesday night, in Sderot. The phantom of the Knesset.

Before he came to Sderot, Rivlin went to Rabbi Avraham Shapira. The meeting took place at the initiative of the rabbi, who is looking for people who have access to the prime minister. The elderly Shapira, who has called upon soldiers to refuse to obey orders, apparently does not read newspapers. Rivlin's chances of being admitted to an audience with Sharon are smaller than Balad MK Azi Bishara's.

I can't sleep at night, said the rabbi to Rivlin. How can this tragedy that is happening to us all be stopped?

I am afraid, rabbi, sir, said Rivlin, that it's impossible. Too late. I am also not certain that the State of Israel would come out ahead. It could be very dangerous to the country's status among the nations, in the international community.

Shapira nevertheless tried to appeal to Rivlin to go to Sharon. You know, said the rabbi, that every individual has a good impulse and an evil impulse. The evil impulse, what satisfies it? Respect. A good name. Go to Sharon, appeal to his evil impulse, and tell him that if he stops now, he will win a name for all eternity. If he stops, there will not be a Jew in the world who will not admire him and pray for him, as a person who stopped right at the brink of the abyss.

Rivlin nearly melted. He knows the ultra-Orthodox world well, and he knows how much the rabbi is considered a rationalist, not a mystic. Sharon, said Rivlin, is doing this thing precisely to bring about rehabilitation in the world.

I'm not talking only about this world, said the rabbi, but about the next world. In the next world, he will win a name for all eternity.

Rivlin explained gently that what interests Sharon is this world. I'm afraid, he said, that the prime minister's conceptual world is not the rabbi's conceptual world. Even when Sharon did things that were to our liking, he did them because of completely different motives.

Rivlin also had something to say to the rabbi. I am firmly opposed to your call to refuse to obey an order, the speaker said to him. This is the gravest thing that can happen to the country. It is like heresy. The settlements that we are leaving perhaps one day we will be able to return to them. Who knows? But the rift that will develop in the nation as a result of rebellion against temporal law we shall never be able to mend. Later at the rally, on the stage, 90-year-old Menachem Porush stood and wondered, in a broken voice, what had happened to the Ariel Sharon he had known, the Sharon of yore. "Mr. Sharon," cried the senior Porush. "Please, return to the previous Mr. Sharon, please!"

Two weeks from now, said Rivlin. Two weeks from now he will return.

'Ah, the couscous'Two hours before the rally in Sderot began, the settler leadership came to Mayor Eli Moyal's bureau. He sat them down around the rectangular conference table, and signaled them to begin. And they began. One after another, the Yesha wheeler-dealers burbled and went to all lengths to express their admiration and love for Sderot, which for some reason, perhaps technical, had not been expressed until now.

"We are so thrilled to be here," said Zviki Bar-Hai. "We've been told that 500 people have opened their homes to demonstrators, including that woman with the couscous."

"Ah, the couscous, the couscous," twittered Bar-Hai's colleagues. "We've heard that her couscous is famous."

"I understand that yesterday pressures were applied to you not to host us," said Bar-Hai to Moyal, companionably.

Moyal was surprised to hear this. "No," he said dryly, "there weren't any pressures."

"You come into this city," emoted Bentzi Lieberman, "and you encounter such real joy, in this kind of hospitality. There is a natural connection here. This is a real engagement, not only with the development towns with the whole Jewish people."

The one who really surpassed himself was Pinhas Wallerstein. Even Moyal, no small cynic, seemed a bit embarrassed. "Today," confessed Wallerstein, "I admit that I felt far more motivation to come to the aid of my heroic brethren in Sderot than to the aid of the ones in the Gush. Anyone who walks through Sderot today sees a smile from ear to ear. Such rejoicing."

Moyal regarded the speakers poker-faced. He knows better than anyone what kind of rejoicing there is in his city, which goes about its business under the constant threat of Qassams and is staggering under a burden of severe economic difficulties, unemployment and human distress. And where does all of this come from? Who if not he has been marketing these problems effectively to the outside world, to the center of the country. Suddenly he is informed that Sderot is like the prosperous, centrally located community of Ramat Hasharon. Moyal is sophisticated. He is intending to run, in the Likud Central Committee, for a place on the next Likud list for the Knesset. The role that he is playing in the disengagement story on the one hand supports and flatters and entices the demonstrators, and on the other hand involves calls for abiding by the law, satisfies the various central committee branches, and turns his race for the slot of Likud representative in the Negev into a mere formality.

Tell me, Moyal was asked afterward. Didn't all that embarrass you, all that fawning?

It's human," he said. "It's human. I understand them."