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Likud Referendum Failure

03 May 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Yesterday, the Likud rejected the referendum on PM Ariel Sharon’s “Disengagement Plan”. 59.5% voted against and 39.7% in favor. Many observers criticize Sharon for severely underestimating the hard line right wing in his own party since the PM would not have agreed on such an initiative with US President Bush if he knew of its future rejection by those closest to him.

The settler movement, and especially those in the Gaza Strip slated for eviction, put together a well thought out, homespun and emotional campaign in lobbying Likud party members against the move. They called and/or met with every possible party member to actualize the human side of an evacuation, enlisting children as well. Jews forcing other Jews to become “refugees” in the Land of Israel never goes over well, but certainly hit a raw nerve with the Likud membership. Secondly, the settlers, who are represented much more by the ideologically hard line National Religious Party and National Union faction, left their Greater Land of Israel commitments behind and stressed the necessity of retaining the Jewish presence in Gaza without demanding an annexation of all lands, meaning 1.3 million Palestinians. The pragmatism of only seeking annexation of their settlement blocs, appealed to the less dogmatic Likudnik. Finally, settlement activists camped out in front of polling stations and applied full personal pressure on each voter right up until he cast his ballot.

In the broad political sense, the Disengagement opponents played on the general Likud fear and hatred of the Oslo process, accusing Sharon of implementation through the proposed evacuation. Were the vote to pass, Shimon Peres and Labor were expected to replace the NRP and the NU. Labor has shifted leftwards over the past few years and Peres is synonymous with Oslo.

But Sharon did not suffer the massive failure as described by some politicians and commentators. The PM lost a very important tactical round, but in no way will he back down from his commitments. Of the 193,000 member Likud some 100,000 voted of which 60,000 rejected the proposal. One can rest assured that the ideological opposition voted in mass, while fence sitters and those moderately in favor of the Disengagement are dominant amongst those who did not vote. Also the Likud vote does not represent Israel as a whole, which in a nationwide referendum would be expected to show staunch support.

The immediate fallout includes a weakened PM, embarrassment for the American administration and European Union supporters and a sharp defeat for the Likud centrist faction. But 12 – 15 years ago no one in the Likud would have dared to speak (or possibly think) of withdrawing from parts of the Land of Israel, regardless of demographics, international pressure or security considerations. Today at least 40% of the Likud supports such a policy and the evacuation of Jewish settlements. Despite the massive opposition campaign two out of five Likud members withstood the intense ideological and personal pressures and stood with Sharon.

One of Israel’s most successful generals ever, Sharon is a fighter, not a quitter. He has already announced his intention to attain the Disengagement in one form or another. The first battle ended in defeat, but the war is far from over.