Gaza vote threatens Sharon's power

If Likud rejects pullout, Netanyahu may challenge for party leadership

May 02, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Ariel Sharon's trademark characteristics include his bulky build, a trumpeting voice - and an extraordinary political resilience.

Today, that storied ability to bounce back from adversity will be put to a crucial test as members of his conservative Likud Party hold a referendum on the Israeli prime minister's proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Polls have suggested they are likely to reject the plan.

Sharon envisions his initiative as an ambitious first step toward drawing the borders of Israel and those of a future Palestinian state. While he is ready to relinquish Gaza, Sharon has announced his intention to retain several large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Under the pullout plan, which won the blessing of President Bush last month, Jewish settlers would leave their homes in Gaza in mid-2005. If the withdrawal were to go forward, it would mark only the second time in its history that Israel had voluntarily given up lands seized in the 1967 Middle East war - the first being Israel's withdrawal from its settlements in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Over the past several days, half a dozen separate opinion polls have forecast a rebuff of the plan by margins of up to 8 percentage points. Defeat would not only throw into doubt Sharon's ability to move ahead with a Gaza pullout, but might ultimately cause the prime minister to lose his grip on power.

Sharon, who had initially pledged to abide by the referendum result, has said in recent days he does not consider it legally binding. But a "no" vote would sharply restrict his maneuvering room if he brings the plan as promised before his divided Cabinet and the often-contentious Knesset, or parliament.

Polls have consistently suggested that a majority of Israelis are ready to get out of Gaza. Many regard it as a quagmire that exacts a too-heavy toll of Israeli troops who guard the settlements where about 7,500 Jews live among more than 1.2 million Palestinians.

But this is not a vote by the general public. Those eligible to cast ballots in today's referendum are 193,000 registered members of the Likud Party, which for decades has opposed relinquishing any Jewish settlements.

Until the middle of last week, it appeared that Sharon and his camp held the lead, if only a slim one. But an intensive lobbying campaign waged by the Yesha Council, the settlers' umbrella group, appeared to have brought about an eleventh-hour reversal.

The settlers and their supporters canvassed Likud members door-to-door, often bringing along their small children to help plead their cause. They put leaflets on cars at major intersections in nearly every Israeli city and town; they hung banners, printed bumper stickers and staged an all-out advertising blitz.

Sharon, by contrast, largely contented himself with giving interviews to promote the plan and telephoning key Likud members to seek support. A few top aides including his deputy, Ehud Olmert, barnstormed the country, but several influential party leaders, most notably Benjamin Netanyahu, stayed on the campaign sidelines even after declaring themselves in favor of the plan.

Political observers read Netanyahu's pointed non-participation as a signal that he intends to challenge Sharon for the Likud leadership if the vote goes against the prime minister. Sharon and Netanyahu, the country's two most prominent conservative politicians, are longtime rivals who often try to stymie each other's ambitions.

Seeing his numbers slipping, Sharon made an urgent round of final appeals for support.

"I am in the midst of a battle," he said in a television interview aired as the Jewish Sabbath began Friday, invoking the military metaphors he often employs at times of crisis. "I have not surrendered. ... I have always continued to stand fast even at times when others have lost hope."

The prime minister has warned that a rejection of his plan would damage relations with the United States, quash Israel's nascent economic recovery and gladden Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom most Israelis despise.

Sharon said he did not want to talk about what would happen if he lost, but he raised the possibility of calling new elections. He also suggested he might eject far-right opponents from his Cabinet and form a new alliance with the left-leaning Labor Party, which backs his plan.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.