Gil Cohen Magen  /  Reuters
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attends a Likud party meeting in the Israeli parliament on Monday.
By Martin Fletcher Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/3/2004 11:26:53 AM ET 2004-05-03T15:26:53

The only theory not yet proposed on why Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lost the vote on his Gaza withdrawal plan is that he did so on purpose, because he never really wanted to leave Gaza anyway.

Apart from that Machiavellian take on the Likud party's vote on whether to pull Jewish settlers and Israeli troops out of Gaza, Israeli pundits have left no stone unturned in trying to understand what's going on.

The key question — now that Sharon has suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his formerly most loyal supporters, the settlers, is: what will he do? Resign? Call for early elections? Vote in the cabinet and parliament? Call the plan something else and implement it gradually?

The one thing nobody expects him to do is give up.

Most worried of all are the people who know him the best, the settlers, whose celebrations at their landslide victory are muted by the knowledge that this is just the beginning of the battle to keep their homes in Gaza.

The math
Sharon's best weapon against the legitimacy of the settlers’ victory against him is in the math.

He can point to the tiny number of Likud members who are blocking what he considers critical progress towards making Israel a safe, democratic, Jewish state. 

Of the 193,000 Likud party members entitled to vote in the Gaza poll, only 79,000 chose to do so on Sunday. Of that number, roughly 60 percent voted against it, which translates to about 47,000 votes against the proposal and 32,000 for it.

Searching for peace

So as few as 15,000 people, the difference between for and against, have stymied Israel's most ambitious attempt at peace-making in years.

Sharon's aides are already dropping strong hints at the spin the prime minister will use. He is prime minister, they are saying privately, of all the people of Israel, not just of his own party.

And seeing that only half the party voted, and 40 percent of them voted for his plan, he has every right to consider this an obstacle but no more than that. For the sake of Israel, they are saying, he must persist in the plan to evacuate Gaza.

Sharon has said he will respect the vote. But that doesn't mean he considers his hands tied.

Likud party alienates itself in victory
It is a non-binding decision that carries moral weight and that dictates to Sharon that he must not ignore the opinion of his core supporters in his own party.

But, the clearest conclusion of the vote is that Likud party members have set themselves against the majority of Israelis beause opinion polls show that a solid majority of Israelis want to leave Gaza if it is a step towards peace. Supporters of an evacuation number about 65 percent of Israelis, according to the polls.

So now the Likud party, although it voted decisively against Sharon's plan, has won a Pyrrhic victory. By winning, it has established itself as out of step with the majority of Israelis.

That is the party's dilemma. But Sharon's dilemma is just as tough.

Although most Israelis agree with his plan, most don't vote for him in elections and he is alienating those who do.

Logically Sharon's best hope would be to stand as an independent with his own Gaza plan and make the election into a yes or no vote on his plan.

That will never happen, of course — but it's as good as many of the proposals he is considering as he contemplates the big question arising out of his big defeat: How to stay in power while ignoring the people who put him there.

Martin Fletcher is the NBC News bureau chief and lead correspondent in Tel Aviv.


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