President Bush, Beware of Ariel the Albatross
by Yedidya Atlas
Feb. 24, 2004 / Adar 2, 5764
US President George W. Bush is running for reelection. What seemed a certainty just six months ago is now in serious question. Although his almost certain Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, is currently leading Mr. Bush in the latest opinion polls, this is no doubt due to his sweeping primary victories, and following the excitement generated by their respective party conventions, the polls will simply show a tight presidential race which can go either way.
In such an election, key voter blocs are all the more important in swinging crucial states with their commensurate Electoral College votes to a particular candidate. For incumbent President Bush, the Evangelical Christian vote is particularly vital if he is to succeed in the Southern and Southwestern states. The Orthodox/politically conservative Jewish voters could play a far lesser, but no less decisive factor in a close election in more than one state including Florida.
One of the primary issues that will influence these voter blocs, is the Bush administration's Middle East policy, and specifically if it pressures Israel, or even is perceived to pressure Israel, to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority commanded by arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat. It's not that these voters will necessarily crossover to vote for the Democratic candidate, it's enough if they simply stay home on Election Day because they feel betrayed by Mr. Bush's policy behavior.
These hardcore supporters of Israel oppose any Israeli territorial concessions in general, and particularly so while Israel is under fire from an aggressive and brutal terrorist enemy. Mr. Bush fully comprehends the moral and strategic ramifications of making any, and especially ill-advised, concessions to a ruthless terrorist enemy while waging a War Against Terror.
The new diplomatic initiative proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to unilaterally evacuate 17 Jewish towns and villages with thousands of longtime Israeli residents from Gaza, is a political hot potato. While in reality, not a serious proposal, it could, if backed by the Bush White House, be the issue that would lose Mr. Bush the support of dedicatedly pro-Israel voters in what promises to be a singularly tight election.
For those who believe the Sharon proposal is serious either because they oppose it, or because they believe it has merit have not examined the practicalities or perhaps, the impracticalities - inherent in such a proposed course of action. So let's look a bit closer at this dramatic diplomatic scheme of Mr. Sharon's.
Conceptually, it goes against everything Mr. Sharon has said and done for most of his life. And in fact, it is claimed that when the plan was suggested to Mr. Sharon at a meeting at his ranch, he immediately opposed it on strategic and logical grounds. So why then has the former general turned politician suddenly made an about face? It is alleged that his advisors soon convinced him that only a "dramatic diplomatic initiative" such as this would force the police investigations against his sons and himself to be placed on the back burner. Moreover, should he not adopt such a plan, the investigation would ultimately force him out of office and possibly even worse. Hence, it is alleged, Mr. Sharon decided to promote, for personal reasons, the very plan he initially opposed on national interest grounds. A prominent member of Mr. Sharon's own government has passed on what he considers to be proof of these allegations to the Attorney General for review. Whether or not the foregoing is a true reconstruction of the meeting in question will be determined by the State Attorney General's investigation.
Yet the prime minister will face near-insurmountable difficulties, in several areas, should he attempt to implement his unilateral plans.
The Political (Israel): Domestically, although Mr. Sharon may feel like a king, he is only the Prime Minister of his coalition government by virtue of his being the head of the Likud Party. The Likud, is Israel's largest party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, with 40 seats (out of 120). Now, Mr. Sharon must first get a majority of his cabinet ministers to vote to support his scheme. His coalition government is comprised of five different parties two of which openly oppose such a decision (representing 13 Knesset seats out of his 69 seat coalition). Then he has to bring it to a vote in the Knesset. In addition to the 13 Knesset seats of the National Union Party and the National Religious Party (NRP), a majority of his own 40-seat Likud Party is on record as opposing the plan to the point of splitting the party if necessary. In fact, only 4 of 11 Likud ministers have endorsed it. So for him to personally survive politically, he must also get the Likud to approve such a radical departure from its own party platform, upon which he was elected. The likelihood of all these things happening is seriously in doubt.
Moreover, should he succeed somehow in browbeating a majority of his cabinet to vote in favor, his coalition government would fall because the National Union and NRP would leave the Government. Mr. Sharon's political threat to bring in the Labor Party to fill the void is a hollow threat. The odds that, one, his key Likud Ministers would agree to vacate their cabinet seats for Labor candidates, and two, that his own Likud Party would agree to so boldly betray its voters' trust, and become, in effect, a minority party in the government coalition, is between nil and none.
One of his own Likud Ministers, Natan Sharansky, in a media interview stated his opposition most succinctly: "A unilateral move on this scale is not logical. I simply don't see what we gain, except for encouragement for more terrorism. The area from which we retreat will turn into a center of terrorism against us. International pressure upon us will not decrease, and no one in the world will agree to an Israeli annexation of even one square meter of Judea and Samaria... It is not healthy or correct to advance matters among United States officials before doing so in the government."
The Security issue: In addition to the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Moshe Ya'alon's public statement against the wisdom of such a unilateral move in today's circumstances, IDF Intelligence Chief General Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, in testimony before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, declared that Prime Minister Sharon's statement of intent to withdraw from Gaza would instigate more terrorism and attacks against IDF Forces. "The Palestinians see [this plan] as a victory for terrorism," Farkash said. He further emphasized the likelihood that the plan will "[prove] the effectiveness of terrorism in the view of Islamist elements in Gaza. [The terrorist groups] see it as a surrender to terrorism, and this gives them motivation to perpetrate more terrorism in order to achieve more diplomatic gains."
Following the Military Intelligence Commander's blunt statements, Israel's Chief of the GSS (General Security Service, or Shabak), Avi Dichter, also publicly declared his professional opposition to Prime Minister Sharon's unilateral withdrawal plan. Dichter said he agrees with the assessment of IDF Intelligence Chief General Ze'evi-Farkash that the Palestinian terrorist organizations interpret Mr. Sharon's offer to retreat and destroy the Jewish settlement enterprise in Gaza as their victory and, as such, a catalyst for more terrorism. He further pointed out that the terrorist organizations, seeing this as an Israeli surrender, have begun an internal war for the "credit" for this achievement, and "this is manifest by their stepping-up of terrorism against the Jews of Gaza and IDF soldiers."
The Financials: The estimated cost of such an evacuation, reconstruction- relocation, and military redeployment, is estimated at between US$10-15 billion. This kind of money simply does not exist in Israel's current and foreseeable government budgets and if Mr. Sharon's advisors think this money is going to come from Uncle Sam, they'd better think again. Going into a really rough election year, and with the US Congress cutting budgets, it would not be Mr. Bush's smartest move to pledge $15 billion to a Prime Minister with serious political problems to blow on a scheme that has little chance of actual implementation and no chance of success.
The Human Element (Gaza): Aside from significant political and public support, the thousands of longtime Jewish residents of these Gaza communities have not, nor will they (according to their own declarations), agree to just pack up and leave. So in addition to the moral dilemma of deliberately transferring three generations of Israeli pioneering families, Mr. Sharon has yet to solve the legal issues involved. Thousands of upstanding citizens with legal rights that can't be wished away not by Mr. Sharon and his advisors, and not by his fellow travelers on Israel's liberal-left. Simply put, no actual legal solution has been conceived that can make these citizens move from their homes and property against their will.
But even if all the improbable and impossible can be overcome, the planning and implementation of such a grandiose scheme would take at least five to six years to carry out. So unless the Palestinian Arabs suddenly choose to exercise remarkable restraint, way out of historical character, Mr. Sharon's political gamble will be doomed to early failure for that reason alone.
Given the minefield Mr. Sharon must morally, politically, strategically, financially and legally cross, it would not be Mr. Bush's best move to invite him to The White House and declare his support for Mr. Sharon's private political initiative. If he does, Mr. Bush should not be surprised to find himself with an Israeli Albatross around his neck through the final months of the upcoming US Presidential elections.
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Yedidya Atlas is a senior correspondent and commentator for Arutz Sheva Israel National Radio who specializes in geostrategic and geopolitical aspects of the Arab-Israel conflict and
Middle Eastern affairs. A reserve officer with the rank of Major in the Israel Defense Forces,
Mr. Atlas resides in the town of Beit El north of Jerusalem with his wife Batya, a sixth generation Israeli, and their seven children.