JERUSALEM - Israel has been gripped by disengagement fever since the opening
of the winter session of Parliament, the Knesset, last week. In a few days lawmakers
will have to vote on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to withdraw the
army from the Gaza
Strip and dismantle all settlements there, as well as four in the north
of the West
The debate, though, is sharply domestic in contrast with the way the plan is
regarded in the rest of the world, where the consequences for the peace process
are the focus. In Israel, very few people still believe in a peace process in
the short term. The mantra that there is no Palestinian partner in the foreseeable
future has become an article of faith, even among a considerable section of
That may explain why remarks by Dov Weisglass, one of Sharon's senior advisers,
that disengagement was meant to freeze the peace process and prevent indefinitely
the founding of a Palestinian state, was so easily shrugged off by the main
opposition Labour Party, which is to provide Sharon with parliamentary support
for his plan.
Israelis are concerned primarily with scenarios such as the prospect of civil
war, rabbis calling on soldiers to refuse orders, and settler leaders comparing
the proposed evacuation of occupied territory to the Nazi atrocities of World
Dire predictions of the security consequences of unilateral withdrawal still
play a role in the right's resistance against the plan. Over the last couple
of weeks, the disengagement approach seems to have sparked an increase in violence
on both sides in Gaza. Militant Palestinians want to show that Israel is "retreating
under fire" while the government is determined to avoid that impression,
and to show its backers that withdrawal does not mean it will stop fighting
The security situation is often subsumed by purely religious and nationalistic
arguments. This can be seen at its most basic in the simple slogan of the settlers:
"Don't uproot Jews from their homes."
Sharon is facing increasing political pressure against the disengagement plan,
even as the settlers failed last weekend to repeat their earlier more impressive
popular mobilizations. A series of demonstrations were only sparsely attended.
The main obstacle for Sharon was and still is his own Likud party.
A majority of its Knesset faction and most of its cabinet ministers are now
demanding an unprecedented national referendum on the disengagement plan. Sharon
is against it, saying it would delay the plan and dilute the power of the Knesset.
He has vowed rather to go for early elections.
Sharon may well be sincere in saying he does not want unnecessary delays, but
he may also be worried about the outcome of a referendum. Opinion polls show
that a comfortable majority supports the pullback from Gaza but polls have not
been a guarantee in the past.
Earlier this year Sharon was humiliated in a largely symbolic poll among the
membership of his own party. Initially, it had seemed he was cruising toward
victory, but the right and the settlers proved adept at mobilizing an anti-disengagement
Sharon seems to consider the Knesset his best bet. With the support of as little
as half the members of his own party, he may be able to push through the necessary
legislation. Labour is likely to support him, reasoning that any withdrawal
from Gaza is worth it.
But some smaller left-wing and Arab parties have actually announced they may
vote against the plan because they distrust Sharon's intentions.
The statement by Weisglass plays an important part in that decision. Sharon's
stated objective for as long as he has been prime minister has been to give
the Palestinians no more than 40 percent of the West Bank as a "long-term
interim solution." Weisglass' remarks are consistent with that vision.
One of the reasons Sharon is eager to push the disengagement plan through against
the wishes of his own party is probably the position of the current U.S. administration.
He seems to bet on President George Bush being reelected.
Earlier this year, in an ultimately vain attempt to bolster Sharon ahead of
the poll in his Likud party, Bush changed long-standing official U.S. policy
and for the first time said "reality on the ground" dictated that
some settlement areas remain under Israeli control after a final peace deal
with the Palestinians.
The U.S. administration may not intend the disengagement plan to lead to further
delays in the peace process, but it is such assurances that may lead Sharon
to think he can achieve exactly that.
The European Union has recognized that the disengagement plan may be the end
rather than the beginning of a new peace process. Earlier this month its ministers
of foreign affairs said disengagement could not replace the roadmap the
defunct international peace plan and a two-state solution to the conflict.
The Palestinians, while welcoming a withdrawal, have from the beginning suspected
that Sharon's plan was to give up Gaza in order to strengthen Israel's hold
over the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority has said it will not consider Israel's withdrawal
from Gaza an end to occupation. Under the plan, the borders, sea and airspace
would still be controlled by Israel. The Oslo agreement makes Gaza and the West
Bank one political unit.
Militant Palestinian groups in Gaza are also determined to sabotage the disengagement
plan. They are not interested in an easing of the confrontation with Israel.
But moderate Palestinians and left-wing Israelis still support the plan not
because they trust Sharon or believe in unilateral steps, but first because
any withdrawal from Palestinian territory should be welcomed, and secondly because
such steps may create their own dynamic unintended by anybody involved. If you
start withdrawing from some occupied territories, what justification remains
for holding on to the rest?