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Prepare To Evacuate

8 minute read
Matt Rees/Jerusalem

Friends can be hard to come by when you’re fighting for your political life. During a recent session of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Ariel Sharon sat impassively as a former supporter harangued him from the podium, addressing the Prime Minister by his nickname, Arik, and attacking his plan to evacuate 7,500 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. “Why can’t you be the man you once were?” shouted the man, a settler named Nissim Slomiansky. “Be the old Arik?” Slomiansky accused Sharon of selling out longtime comrades in his single-minded quest to redraw Israel’s borders according to his own design. After listening to several minutes of invective, Sharon turned wearily to the minister seated next to him. “Doesn’t he understand,” the Prime Minister whispered, “that it’s impossible to go back?”

After a 31-year political career during which he has established himself as one of the most divisive, yet enduring leaders in the world, Sharon once again faces a critical juncture. An Israeli state prosecutor last week recommended that Sharon be indicted on corruption charges stemming from allegations that he gave favors to a political supporter in return for payments to Sharon’s son Gilad. Sharon denies the allegations, but if the Attorney General goes forward with the indictment in early June, Sharon will probably face enormous pressure from the public and the media to resign. Yet the prospect of being forced from office seems only to have added to Sharon’s desire to carry out his bold policy of “disengagement,” which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and perhaps much of the West Bank and the completion of a wall to seal off Israel from Palestinian-dominated territory. If implemented, the plan would result in the first evacuations of settlements by Israel since the signing of a peace deal with the Palestinians a decade ago.

The fate of the plan could be decided next week, when Sharon is due to visit Washington in an effort to win the White House’s endorsement. Critics of disengagement range from Palestinian leaders who accuse him of trying to draw unilateral borders and subvert the peace process to right-wing Israelis who say Sharon is rewarding Palestinian terrorism. Many see in the Israeli leader’s refusal to compromise with his opponents a familiar, stubborn determination that, while useful in the battles young Sharon won as a general, may prove to be his undoing. Among Sharon’s longtime nemeses, there has been glee at news of his possible downfall. When an aide informed Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat of the prosecutor’s call to indict Sharon, Arafat smiled broadly and, according to people who were present, interrupted a meeting he was chairing. “Didn’t I tell you,” said Arafat, a man not unfamiliar with charges of corruption, “that he will be consigned to the trash can of history, where he will be ignored?”

Sharon’s plight has made him a lonely man. Up at 5 a.m., he spends most of his time out of public view, working hard to maintain a sense of calm in his office even as his aides charge about outside the door in a flurry of diplomatic, legal and political activity. Last month, when he made a rare visit to the Knesset cafeteria for a lunch of chicken soup and schnitzel, not a single legislator approached his table to join him. Each night Sharon takes a helicopter from his office in Jerusalem to his Negev home, Sycamore Ranch. When he’s there, he likes to reminisce about his late wife Lili, whose grave lies on a hilltop under a tree starkly visible against the horizon from the kitchen window. Yet even the secluded ranch can be a reminder of his political troubles. He lives on the farm with Gilad, who is also embroiled in other corruption allegations, some of which concern mortgages and loans tied to the farm.

Still, with his political survival at stake, Sharon has shown flashes of the combativeness that propelled him to past political victories. At a closed meeting of the Knesset foreign-affairs and defense committee last week, Sharon brushed off an opposition politician, Yossi Sarid, who grilled him about whether he could function as Prime Minister while he was under investigation for corruption.

Sharon is determined to seize back the initiative from his critics by pressing forward with his disengagement plan. He surprised Likud Party members last week by announcing that he will ask them to vote on his plan next month. He hopes to ratchet up pressure on right-wing members of the Knesset, who oppose any abandonment of settlements in the occupied territories, to go along with the plan to withdraw from Gaza, which enjoys the support of most grass-roots Likud members and a majority of Israeli voters. Sharon aims to bypass his political opponents by appealing to a broader constituency. “I advise you to take me seriously,” he told an interviewer last week. “I have the power to do this.”

What does Sharon hope to accomplish? At 76, he sees the withdrawal from Gaza as the centerpiece of his lifelong obsession with Israel’s security. “We need to get out of Gaza, not to be responsible anymore for what happens there,” he says. In his reading, there’s no chance of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians so long as Arafat leads them. So, to stem the tide of blood in the meantime, Sharon is preparing to pull Israeli forces and settlers behind his West Bank security barrier and wait for the Palestinian political map to change. The trouble is, to prove he is not pulling out because of pressure from militant Palestinian groups like Hamas, Sharon has taken steps that may only fuel the conflict, most notably his approving the assassination last month of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder of Hamas. And last week Sharon warned that Arafat had “no insurance policy” against possible expulsion or assassination by Israeli forces.

It isn’t clear who at this stage is on Sharon’s side. Though quietly cheered by the prospect of the Israelis’ leaving Gaza, Palestinians are enraged by his assassination policy and the suggestion that Sharon no longer sees the Palestinians as “partners for peace.” Inside his Cabinet, Sharon has faced open criticism from his Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom. At a meeting of Likud Cabinet ministers in Sharon’s office last week, Shalom told the Prime Minister there was no point in a unilateral withdrawal because it was impossible to predict how Palestinians would react in its aftermath. Better, Shalom said, to work out an agreement with the Palestinians. He criticized Sharon for not offering to withdraw last year, when it might have bolstered Mahmoud Abbas, then Palestinian Prime Minister. “He was a partner,” Shalom told Sharon, “but you didn’t propose your plan back then.”

Sharon has not yet persuaded the Bush Administration to go along with this plan. While the White House has signaled a willingness to back an Israeli pullout from Gaza, U.S. officials are skeptical about Sharon’s hopes of annexing parts of the West Bank in exchange. Sharon wants assurances that if he pulls Israel out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, the U.S. will give at least vague recognition to some annexations of West Bank land. But for the U.S. to offer Sharon such assurances would outrage Palestinian and Arab leaders, who see his disengagement plan as a ploy to eat away at the territory of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank. So far, the U.S. says it’s not ready to give Sharon what he wants. “We’re not going to put our seal of approval on anything that’s unilateral,” says a senior State Department official.

Even if Sharon persuades the White House and his party to go along with his plan, Cabinet ministers say, the evacuation of settlers from Gaza wouldn’t begin until October at the earliest–which could be around the start of a Sharon trial, if he is ultimately indicted. At a Cabinet meeting held hours after the state prosecutor’s indictment recommendation, the Deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, greeted Sharon as he took his seat. “Arik, I know it’s not easy, but you can handle it,” Olmert said, gripping Sharon’s hand. “You know, I have some worries,” Sharon admitted. Then he flashed a look of determination. “It’s not that bad,” he said. “I will prevail.” For a moment, the old Arik was back.

–With reporting by Aharon Klein and Jamil Hamad/Jerusalem and Massimo Calabresi/Washington

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