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Last Updated: Friday, 28 May, 2004, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
Analysis: Sharon's pullout crisis

By Barbara Plett
BBC Middle East correspondent

Israeli newspapers have been gripped with the portent of political upheaval. "Government in Crisis," blared the headlines. "End of Sharon".

Ariel Sharon
But it may be a mistake to write off Sharon the survivor just yet
Just a few months ago it seemed like a new beginning.

The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced a bold "Disengagement Plan" to unilaterally withdraw from Jewish settlements and military bases in the occupied Gaza Strip, and from a handful of small settlements in the West Bank.

It was, he said, the way to break the bloody stalemate that gripped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This was viewed as a radical departure for the man known as the father of the settlement project, a believer that military might alone could defeat the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.

The plan was backed by US President George W Bush, who rewarded Mr Sharon's initiative by overturning decades of American foreign policy.

Mr Bush accepted that no Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to their old homes in what was now Israel, and agreed that Israel, in any final peace deal, could in effect annex large settlement blocks in the occupied West Bank. 

The plan was also supported by a clear majority of Israeli Jews, fed up with watching soldiers die in the Gaza Strip. 

Sharon's dilemmas

Then it all started to unravel.

Ariel Sharon's Likud Party voted the plan down. He promised to accept the decision. He didn't.

Instead he dressed the Disengagement Plan up in new clothes, hoping to garner cabinet support for a gradual withdrawal in stages spread out over a period of time, with each phase subject to government approval.  

But in consultations with ministers this week it appeared he would not even be able to get the watered down version accepted in a crucial vote scheduled for Sunday. 

And on Friday he was reported to have reverted to the original plan that had been rejected by the Likud rank-and-file.

This is an acute dilemma for Ariel Sharon. He has staked his political life on a policy that has been resolutely rejected by his party, and looks like being rejected by his government.

Israeli analysts say Mr Sharon has several options, none of them attractive.

  • One: He could accept defeat, and be seen as a lame duck prime minister by the Americans and Israeli public opinion.

  • Two: He could invite the main opposition Labour Party, which supports the Disengagement Plan, to join his government and provide the majority he needs. But that would probably create schisms in his Likud Party.

  • Three: He could resign and hope for general elections where he would seek a popular mandate for withdrawal. The danger is that his main rival in Likud, Binyamin Netanyahu, might have enough support in parliament to form a new government without elections.

Going down fighting

Even if Ariel Sharon eventually secures backing from his cabinet, his life won't be much easier. 

Aerial view of Netzarim settlement in Gaza
Some cabinet members say if one settlement goes, so do they
Two right-wing parties in his coalition have threatened to bolt the government should a single settlement be evacuated, leaving him without a majority in parliament.    

Nor could he necessarily rely on the Labour Party to bail him out. Its leader, Shimon Peres, has declared support for the original Disengagement Plan, not for an amended version.

Some analysts say even this great survivor of Israeli politics will not be able to survive this time.

Some say one should never underestimate him. Given Ariel Sharon's history and personality, only one thing seems certain, he is unlikely to give in without a fight.

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