Is the magic over?

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approaches the first anniversary of his initiative to unilaterally withdraw settlers and forces from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, his plan faces formidable political and security challenges that cast growing doubt on its eventual implementation.

When the Knesset returned to session last week Sharon entered parliamentary trench warfare, facing two legislative tasks: gaining approval for his disengagement plan, and passing the 2005 budget bill. He failed his first, albeit largely symbolic, test as the Knesset voted to reject his statement combining the two controversial issues.

This unexpected failure led many analysts to wonder if Sharon, the former political wizard, has grown weary and lost his magic. After all, he has lost every political trial since unveiling his plan. In May, the Likud members’ referendum rejected it. In June, Sharon had to amend the details and delay the actual decision on settlement removal in order to get Cabinet approval. Then in August his party convention blocked the entrance of the Labor party to the coalition, a necessary step for widening the plan’s support base.

In the current chaotic state of Israel’s political system–a byproduct of the withdrawal design–Sharon rules over a minority government, backed by 58 or 59 out of 120 Knesset members, and must form an ad-hoc coalition for every legislative move. His strategy has been "divide and conquer": leaning on the left wing opposition to pass the disengagement resolutions (both the plan’s endorsement in principle, and a settler evacuation-compensation bill), then turning right for the budget process.

By sheer head counting, Sharon is expected to win the disengagement votes easily. His problem, however, lies within his party, where the anti-withdrawal "rebels" form an effective block of 15 out of 40 MKs. Alongside them, senior figures like ministers Binyamin Netanyahu, Sylvan Shalom and Limor Livnat are torn between their loyalty to Sharon and their need to please the Likud’s central committee, which determines the party’s candidate list. The troika formally supports Sharon’s plan, while trying to dilute it through compromise. Recently, the three joined the settler opposition’s call for holding an unprecedented national referendum over the plan.

Israeli law demands a referendum before giving away "sovereign areas" (i.e., the Golan or East Jerusalem), but not over occupied territories like Gaza. The settlers–backed by threats of violent protest and rabbinic appeals for massive refusal on the part of religious soldiers to obey orders to carry out the evacuation–now call upon Sharon to "ask the public". The prime minister hesitates, citing the inevitable delay in implementation, and probably fearing another defeat by the better-organized opposition. But pressure is mounting, and there are hints he may rethink his position.

Sharon has clearly underestimated the intra-Likud resistance to his idea. In this regard, in the past year an Israeli political myth–the image of the ruling party’s apparatus as a crowd of cynical benefit-seekers–was proven wrong. As it happened the Likudniks appeared as a strongly ideological group, opposing any land concessions as "rewarding Palestinian terrorism".

Terrorism is Sharon’s second, no less complicated problem. In recent weeks, the Gaza front erupted in violent escalation. Palestinian Qassam rockets that killed two toddlers in the Israeli town of Sderot generated in response a fierce, 17-day-long IDF operation in northern Gaza, in which 129 Palestinians were killed–among them at least 42 civilians–at the cost of the lives of three Israelis. When it ended, Israeli forces left the Palestinian towns and redeployed in a "security zone" outside them.

The violent events exposed the inherent paradox in Sharon’s plan: in order to get out of the despised Gaza region, Israel is getting deeper into it. The unilateral idea of leaving a "security vacuum" on the other side, without a credible authority to assure security and quiet, threatens to turn disengagement into a bloody mess, with Hamas and others trying to hit at the departing Israelis. Keeping a "security zone" in post-withdrawal Gaza, no matter how narrow, is a recipe for ongoing violence, undermining Israel’s claim to "end the occupation".

Sharon knows this all too well, and repeatedly says he ordered the IDF to "prevent withdrawal under fire". It is still unclear, however, how this task can be achieved without coordination with a Palestinian interlocutor. But given the precedence of the political test, the security challenges will be dealt with later.

Sharon scheduled the disengagement votes to conclude before the American presidential election, and plans a US trip in mid-November. The United States is expected to show more involvement after the election no matter who wins, and Sharon will be asked to deliver on his still unfulfilled pledges to remove illegal West Bank outposts and freeze settlement construction. Winning the disengagement votes with a credible majority would probably give him more room to maneuver vis-a-vis the Americans and the increasingly impatient Europeans. Therefore his domestic battle is also a diplomatic one.