Sharon gets backing on Gaza plan

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 19-Apr-04 | Author: James Bennet| Source: International Herald Tribune

Netanyahu on board; tens of thousands mourn Hamas leader

JERUSALEM - As tens of thousands of Palestinians vented their rage at Israel over its killing Saturday night of a top militant leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon picked up crucial pledges of support Sunday from right-wing leaders for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip without a peace agreement.

The endorsements, including what Israeli officials said was a pledge of support from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all but guaranteed that Sharon would prevail in a May 2 referendum on his plan within his dominant rightist faction, Likud, Israeli political analysts said.

If he wins the referendum, Sharon will for the first time commit Likud - a bulwark for the goal of a Greater Israel that includes the West Bank and Gaza - to evacuating some settlements and giving up some territory that Israel occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967.

"With great difficulty and with a broken heart I have come to the conclusion that the people today want the possibility of change," said Limor Livnat of Likud, as she reluctantly backed the plan.

The pledges of support for Sharon came as Gaza's streets resounded with demands for retaliation against Israel, after an Israeli missile strike killed Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the top leader in Gaza of the militant group Hamas.

That killing, part of a continuing Israeli campaign against Hamas, underscored that the planned withdrawal may provoke more violence, at least in the short run. Israel says it has stepped up its pressure on Hamas partly out of concern that the group is claiming that the withdrawal represents a defeat for Israel and a validation of militant tactics. Hamas is trying to conduct sensational attacks to support its claims, Israeli officials say. Within Israel, the strikes on Hamas have helped protect Sharon from the accusation that he is emboldening terrorists. The support he received Sunday, however, owed far more to the sweeping new diplomatic commitments that President George W. Bush gave Israel last week in exchange for the withdrawal plan. While infuriating Palestinians, those assurances helped satisfy conditions set by Netanyahu for his support.

Bush said that in any future agreement, Israel should keep some West Bank territory. And, meeting one condition set by Netanyahu, the U.S. president also rejected a "right of return" to what is now Israel for Palestinian refugees of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and their descendants.

Bush also said that Israel would remain free, after withdrawing, to strike into Gaza if it felt threatened from there. That was the second of Netanyahu's conditions.

Sharon met a final condition set by Netanyahu and others on Sunday, when he assured the wavering Likud leaders that he would complete a new barrier he is building against West Bank Palestinians before evacuating any settlements.

Sharon wanted at least some of the same American commitments as Netanyahu. In setting them as explicit conditions for his support, Netanyahu strengthened Sharon's hand in Washington, while improving his own chances of eventually succeeding Sharon.

Netanyahu "was trying to maneuver himself into a position where he would be able to claim credit if and when he needs to take over as prime minister," said Dr. Eran Lerman, director of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee. "He will be in a position to say, 'I didn't just sign on the dotted line, I left my mark on the process."

That Netanyahu was looking for a way to take some credit for the withdrawal plan reflects an underlying reality of Israeli politics: The Likud rank-and-file appears substantially closer to the Israeli center than the Likud leadership on the question of giving up some occupied territory.

"We have a case where the leadership is much more hawkish than the membership," said Itzhak Galnoor, a Hebrew University political scientist.

Predicting victory for Sharon in the referendum, Galnoor said that it would be important in giving "the formal approval to what has been going on informally for a long time" - the transformation of Likud from an opposition party with absolutist politics to a more pragmatic, governing party.

The pledges Sunday also gave further insight into the complex political game Sharon is playing. Sharon used the reluctance of Likud members like Netanyahu to extract concessions he himself wanted from the Bush administration. He then used those concessions to firm up support of Likud.

Now he appears to be using his likely win in the referendum to restrain far-right political parties from bolting his governing coalition.

Addressing the issue of Israel's killing on Saturday of Rantisi, Rice said the United States had not approved the attack in advance against the Hamas Islamic militant leader or known it was going to happen. She said, "the timing is not helpful," but characterized the attack as a legitimate exercise of Israeli self-defense.