Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Hard-Line Disengagement

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 30, 2005 --  

The decision of former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to challenge Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as party leader promises to create a major struggle over the future of the hard-line Likud party. There is no doubt about the prime question of contention: Should the Israeli government continue its plan to unilaterally extricate itself from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?

The leadership struggle within the Likud party takes in ironic turn in that it casts Sharon in the position of the liberal. Long derided by his enemies as the "Butcher of Beirut" for his alleged role in Palestinian massacres during Israel's occupation of Lebanon, Sharon has become synonymous with hard-line Israeli positions. Since his election to be Prime Minister in 2001, however, the bombings and suicide attacks of the second Palestinian Intifada has led Sharon to more creative solutions.

For years, Sharon had punished the families of Palestinian suicide bombers by bulldozing their houses in response. When this tactic produced no results, and the number of bombings continued to increase, Sharon began to embrace ideas that were once associated with his more conciliatory Labor-party predecessor. In 2002, Sharon's government began construction of a security barrier between the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Palestinian cities. This barrier quickly proved quite effective in stopping suicide bombings on the Jewish side of the walls and fences.

But there was a problem from within: because the wall served as a de-facto border between Jewish and Arab areas, it served to inflame hard-line Israelis believing in the Jewish state's claim to all of the West Bank -- areas they refer to as biblical Judea and Samaria. To make matters worse, practical considerations made it impossible to include the smallest and most isolated Jewish settlements on the Jewish side of the barrier, giving rise to settlers' fears of abandonment by the Israeli government.

These fears were realized last week, when the Israeli government's forced the evacuation of Jews from a few isolated settlements in the northern West Bank, along with all of those in the Gaza Strip. Sharon's support for the pullout of Gaza further enraged hard-line Israelis, including those within his own Likud party. While Sharon managed to push his Gaza pullout plan through parliament, he was opposed by most members of his own party.

It is these angry, hard-line members of Likud that Netanyahu hopes will give him Sharon's job. And while they are likely to give him his wish, it is far less likely that Netanyahu will manage to return Likud to power in general elections next year -- polls in Israel show that most voters support both the West Bank security barrier and the Gaza pullout.

Netanyahu's core problem is that he has not been able to offer a meaningful alternative. He criticizes Sharon's moves as appeasing terrorists, but doesn't suggest anything that he could do instead. By opposing any change in the status quo -- a status quo that has included countless suicide bombings, international isolation, and Arab population growth surpassing Jewish numbers -- Netanyahu offers Israeli Jews a miserable path to disaster.

This reality is stark enough to hit voters in the face like a frying pan. Should he succeed in ousting Sharon from his Likud party leadership, Netanyahu will likely lead his party to defeat. Given the pary's historic hard-line positions toward Palestinians, Israel's disengagement from Likud could prove as beneficial as its disengagement from the Gaza Strip.