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Monday, May 03, 2004

The Inside (Israel) Scoop: On the Defeat of Retreat

by Dr. Aaron Lerner, Director of IMRA


The key difference between the Likudniks who voted massively against the retreat plan and the rest of Likud voters - and for that matter the "average" Israeli - is not a matter of ideology but knowledge. By the same token that a huge number of secular and traditional Likudniks who originally told pollsters that they supported the retreat plan changed their positions after being presented with the facts, the general body of Likud voters - and
"average" Israelis - can also be brought over to opposing retreat when provided the opportunity to learn the facts.

A key theme driving support for retreat among Israelis is a view that there is a need to "do something" about the "situation". But the key element of "the situation" is not specifically the Arab-Israeli conflict but instead the economic situation. The greater the proportion of the population that is drawn into the ongoing economic recovery the lower the pressure to "do something". Thus, the longer the window available for both the education of
the public on the one hand, and an improvement in the economy, on the other, the greater the possibility of bringing over the majority of the Israeli public to also oppose retreat.

By the same token that the massive propaganda campaign by the Israeli media supporting Sharon's retreat plan failed to convince Likudniks, the general Israeli public, jaded by over a decade of media Oslo propaganda, will not be suckered into accepting the massive media campaign that was launched at 10:00 PM this evening with the announcement of the exit poll results to paint the Likud as a radical right wing party out of touch with the rest of the nation.

While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was willing to warn of the catastrophic consequences on both the diplomatic and economic front if his retreat plan is rejected, he has no interest in such a catastrophe now that he has been trounced. Nothing will be done to interfere with the economic recovery well under way and the last thing that President Bush wants to do, only months before his own election day, is punish the Jewish State for the outcome of its democratic processes.

Prime Minister Sharon's harsh words against his opponents during the campaign in no way prevents cooperation in the future. Sharon's terming his opponents "extreme right" is nothing as compared to the words that the Labor Party used against him in the heated election campaign of 2001 which he gracefully ignored the moment the polls closed and he invited them to join the ruling coalition.

Shinui leader Minister Lapid doesn't threaten to even consider leaving the ruling coalition if the retreat plan is rejected - he only asks that he be given the opportunity to vote on it in the cabinet - where it will be defeated. He does this in full knowledge that the overwhelming majority of his own party (77% in a poll last week) wants to stay in the coalition even if the retreat plan is rejected.

Binyamin Netanyahu and the other "shfanim" ("bunnies") - Limor Livnat and Sylvan Shalom unintentionally made a greater contribution to defeating the retreat plan by half heartedly endorsing it than they would have made if they took key roles in the campaign against the plan. Their absence prevented Sharon from turning the vote into a personality contest between
him and the prime ministers in waiting. No one could possibly claim that Minister Uzi Landau, who led the campaign against retreat, is a contender for the prime minister's slot. Likudniks did not have to worry that a vote against retreat in any way could be interpreted as a vote in favor of a candidate they do not want to support.

It is doubtful that Netanyahu's political future was seriously hurt by his move since no major Likud personality who is considered a possible candidate for prime minister had the intestinal fortitude to openly oppose Sharon's retreat plan. Netanyahu only reminded the rank and file of his perennial orthopedic problem. The puzzle for Likudniks is not, therefore, which candidate to support in the future, but rather what mechanisms or devices might be employed to deal with their seemingly inevitable spinelessness.

While the media welcomes Deputy Minister Ehud Olmert's calls to immediately reward savage Palestinian terror with retreat, it is far from clear if Mr. Olmert, who returned from the defunct Central Party to the 32nd place in the Likud, will be able to make the cut in the next Likud primaries.

Finally, the last thing Ariel Sharon wants to do today is risk forfeiting the special standards that are applied by the attorney general when considering the criminal indictment of a prime minister. A serving prime minister is only indicted if there is a close to absolute certainty he will be convicted. A former prime minister can be sent to court if the odds for a conviction are just better than even. Hence his announcement already tonight that he has no intention to resign.