Spotlight on the Likudniks
Jude Wanniski
May 1, 2004


Memo To: My Jewish Friends
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Sunday's Vote

One of the most important "votes" of the year will be tomorrow's referendum in Israel, where members of the Likud Party will vote up or down on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to abandon settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The uniform press reports say the plan will be voted down, which I really think would be the best thing that could happen. Why? Because it will force our political establishment and press corps to face the fact that the Likudniks are passionately opposed to a viable Palestinian state. It is this passionate opposition that has fueled the policies of the neo-cons in the United States across all other issues in the Middle East. If it were not for Likud, there would not have been a 9-11 and there would not have been a Bush pre-emptive war in Iraq. Some of you I consider friends, Jewish friends, will reject this hypothesis, and I can understand why. Lots of blood and treasure has gone down the drain because of the Likudniks mania for having all of the Transjordan under an Israeli flag. My hope is that Sharon, who knows this is the case, is really serious about shaking up the politics of the Middle East with his unusual initiative. Let's all hope the result helps stanch the bloodletting in the Middle East instead of instigating more.

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Advisers Eye Fallout of Sharon's Gaza Plan

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip even if his Likud Party rejects the plan in Sunday's referendum -- as polls predict, his advisers said Saturday.

However, a defeat could trigger a major political crisis, including a Cabinet reshuffle, a split in Likud or even early elections. Sharon would be weakened politically by a defeat in his own party, but he is not expected to resign.

Analysts say that even though polls give referendum opponents a strong lead, the race is still open. Much depends on how many of Likud's 193,000 members turn out, with a strong showing expected to help Sharon.

Under Sharon's plan of ''unilateral disengagement,'' Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and evacuate some 7,500 settlers, take down four small West Bank settlements and complete construction of a West Bank separation barrier by the end of 2005. Sharon argues that this would give Israel defensible borders and reduce friction with the Palestinians in the absence of a final peace deal.

Opponents, who say an Israeli withdrawal will be viewed as a victory by Palestinian militants, accuse Sharon of betraying the settlers, his erstwhile constituents. For decades, Sharon was the foremost champion of settlement expansion, responsible for establishing many of the communities he now plans to remove.

In Gaza, an 8-year-old Palestinian boy was killed Saturday and 12 Palestinians were wounded, 10 of them minors, by army fire near Israeli settlements, hospital officials said. The army said soldiers fired in response to an anti-tank missile and several firebombs. Two teens got too close to a settlement, the army said.

Polls in the Likud vote open at 8 a.m. Sunday, and official results are expected Monday.

Referendum opponents have run a tight campaign, visiting tens of thousands of Likud members in their homes. Thousands of Gaza settlers spent the weekend with relatives in Israel for a final campaign of persuasion in synagogues Saturday and at polling stations Sunday.

Sharon placed phone calls to Likud activists after the Jewish Sabbath ended at sundown Saturday. However, he had less than two hours since he was not expected to call Likud members at home after the start of the Euroleague basketball championship game.

With defeat appearing likely, critics said Sharon underestimated his opponents and did not campaign hard enough. In calling the referendum about a month ago, Sharon was confident his popularity in the party would translate into easy victory.

However, it appears the emotional attachment many Likud members have to the idea of a ''Greater Israel'' is stronger than their support for Sharon. Influential Likud ministers, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reluctantly supported the withdrawal plan and did not campaign for Sharon.

In recent days, the two sides used increasingly harsher language. Sharon dismissed his opponents as ''extreme right-wing'', while Likud hardliners accused him of using unfair scare tactics. Sharon has warned that rejection of his plan could lead to early elections and force Likud out of power.

On Saturday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is popular among Likud hawks, appealed for their support, saying the disengagement plan is good for Israel and has the backing of the security forces.

He also told Israel Radio that the plan's rejection could harm Israel's relationship with the United States by making Israel appear to be an unreliable partner.

''We must not miss this historic opportunity,'' he said.

If the plan is rejected, Sharon has several options.

For example, he could take it to his Cabinet, though its approval there is not assured given its current composition.

Also, he could bypass the Cabinet and submit it to parliament for approval, but he might risk a party split.

He could call a general referendum since his plan has broad public support, but legislation paving the way for such a vote could take months.

Finally, he could form a new coalition with the moderate Labor Party.

Resignation is not an option because Sharon does not want to hand the reins to Netanyahu, his biggest rival, political analyst Hanan Crystal said on Israel Radio.

''He (Sharon) will have to absorb this blow,'' he said. ''This is not a knockout, and he can get up.''

A Sharon aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the prime minister is determined to press ahead with the withdrawal plan, even if Likud rejects it.

''He will not let go of this plan,'' the adviser said. ''The commitments that the prime minister has made to President Bush and the leaders of other countries will not be changed. Israel will stand by its commitments.''

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press