Time to Take Off His Gloves

These are fateful times in which we cannot allow rebel forces to clash with or claim victory over a lawful, elected government. Sharon was right to hit the ceiling this week.

Only this week, after the ugly scenes in Yitzhar, did Israel Defense Forces commanders spill the beans to the prime minister about how Kedumim Mayor Daniella Weiss had cursed a senior officer, slapped him in the face, and when he didn't respond gave him a shove and threw him down. And that is just a sample of how the settlers are treating the soldiers who guard them and are being killed for their sake.

Sharon was shocked and angry. Appearing before the legendary paratrooper unit, Battalion 890, he firmly declared that such things must not happen. "I watched the footage from the evacuation and it was obvious that this sort of humiliation was not what you were trained for. I heard the curses and sat there biting my lip," he said.

Don't take it personally, he told them. It's not you they're mad at; it's me and the government. "But those who call on the settlers to fight the IDF are doing the worst possible thing to you. With their curses and provocation, they're trying to drag you outside the national consensus." Settlements can be rebuilt, Sharon continued angrily, but not the IDF.

At a meeting that day with the defense minister, chief of staff and division commanders, it was like Sharon had snapped out of a coma. Full of vim and vigor, he spoke about the need to take forceful action against anyone who dared to raise a hand to a soldier or urged soldiers to disobey orders. He looked like a raging bull.

The country has entrusted you with a historic mission, he said, and it is your job to carry it out. He called on the officers not to waver or be hesitant. You have the right to hit back. The IDF must show that it has the legal authority to perform the duties imposed on it by the government. Sharon also appealed to the court system to stand behind the IDF, and insisted that the defense minister and chief of staff refuse to meet with the heads of Yesha. They'll say you're afraid of them, Sharon conceded.

Sharon, an old pro at courting rabbis, has finally changed his tune. Instead of hanging around outside their doors, he is calling them two-faced. The general message is that the army must be single-minded in executing and completing its mission. There is no room for hesitation or doubt, because the IDF is acting in the name of the government and the lawfully elected Knesset.

Worried messages used to arrive from Washington that Sharon didn't sound serious enough about implementing the disengagement plan. No matter how many times President Bush nagged him to dismantle illegal outposts, nothing happened. The more he went on promising and doing nothing, the more doubtful the Americans were that he could evacuate the settlements of Gaza in one fell swoop.

The official explanation from Jerusalem cited tactical considerations: Why waste energy clashing with settlers who are illegal and whose fate is sealed in any case? Better to save our strength for the big battle. This argument was interpreted by the settlers as a sign of political weakness and inability to get the job done. And when it comes to intimidation campaigns and threats, the settlers can't be beat. Like gangs, they operate by their own rules.

The settlers' conclusion, seeing that the outposts weren't being torn down, was that if you can't walk, then you certainly can't run. The hesitant approach of the government, along with the voices of opposition in the Likud and the arrogance of the rebels, enabled the settlers to portray the disengagement initiative as illegitimate.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Every decision passed by a democratically elected government and Knesset is legitimate. Not dismantling the illegal outposts was a serious failing. Apart from being a show of strength, these evacuations could have been a kind of drill or training exercise for the soldiers and police in preparation for the Great Pullout.

The establishment of a new coalition doesn't mean the danger is over. Inciting soldiers to disobey on the grounds that the evacuation order is illegal is nothing short of a call to rebellion. Never since the period leading up to the 1967 war has the country been in such a state of emergency. The perils at home are no less critical than the external threats to Israel's existence. Because the day a single soldier dies, there is no doubt that the IDF will shoot to kill.

These are fateful times in which we cannot allow rebel forces to clash with or claim victory over a lawful, elected government. Sharon was right to hit the ceiling this week. Now is the time for him to take off his gloves.