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THIS WEEK - 18.02.05

A Review Of The Main News Stories in Israel Over the Past Seven Days -

DISENGAGEMENT - After Knesset Vote, Cabinet and Budget Is Also In The Bag

Settlers: 'We May Have Lost the Battle In The Knesset And Cabinet, But We'll Win In The Streets'


Defense Minister Mofaz May Regret Decision To Oust General Yaalon

PM Sharon and MK Lapid

After the historic Knesset vote on disengagement, Sharon officials believe the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and 4 West Bank settlements is now a done deal. The 59-40 vote poured cold water on the campaign by withdrawal opponents for a national referendum, not that they won't l keep trying. Even the vote count is misleading; the number of hard core MKs against the evacuation is even less than 40 in the 120 member Knesset. The MK breakdown: Likud rebels - 17, National Union - 6, National Religious - 6 for a grand total of 29. Sharon sources say: 'Forget about the 11 Shasniks, the ultra-orthodox party will not oppose the withdrawal if it gets what it wants on child allowances.' This 30% is also said to reflect Israeli public opinion after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas started halting the terrorism.

On to the cabinet vote - Also in the bag for Sharon whether or not Finance Minister Netanyahu (and-or) Foreign Minister Shalom join Ministers Katz, Negbi and Naveh in voting against it.

The State Budget - Is there really a possibility that it will not be approved by the Knesset by the end of next month, forcing the Prime Minister to call an early election and thereby putting the withdrawal on hold. Possible but highly improbable; Shinui leader Tommy Lapid can rail about the $ 60 million political payoff to Torah Judaism, however the latest opinion poll shows that Shinui voters want the party to vote for the budget if disengagement depends upon it. The same applies to Meretz-Yachad which will not allow the evacuation to falter over failing to pass the budget. Ipso facto, Sharon can count on Shinui and Meretz to vote for or abstain when push comes to shove. Then there's Shas which will vote for the budget if the price is right over child allowances or some other welfare payment. Shas leader Elie Yishai announced that his party will not be joining the coalition for the present. However, contacts are continuing so stay tuned for further developments. But if Shas is playing hard to get, Sharon is back courting Shinui leader Lapid with the Sabbath invitation to lunch at the ranch. The Prime Minister may be about to offer Lapid a ladder to climb down from the tree he's up. There are rumblings in Shinui over Lapid's high-handed tactics. Sharon and Lapid should have no trouble comparing notes.

Settler leaders and other withdrawal opponents I have talked to, do not challenge this assessment. But for the settler leaders this is not a matter of earthly politics and the art of the possible. They argue the political battle may have been lost but the war is not over. As one settler leader said after this week's Knesset vote: 'With the help of the Almighty, hundreds of thousands of Israelis will heed the call of Eretz Yisrael and hold massive sit down strikes which will paralyze the evacuation. Then, Sharon would be forced to hold a referendum.

Settlers - Police

On the other hand, the government is not sitting idle. Thousands of police personnel and IDF soldiers have been training for the withdrawal and handling massive protests. Moreover, MK Effy Eitam of the National Union says he has learned the government is ordering large supplies of barbed wire to set up detention camps to hold protestors. Eitam actually got a first whiff of what it may be like when he was kicked out of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee after accusing Sharon of letting far right fanatics carry on their incitement in order to arouse public opinion against the legitimate protest movement against withdrawal.

SHARON - WHY IS HE DOING IT! Many of Sharon's right wing friends and colleagues and voters who cast their ballots for him, keep asking this question. Many feel they are in the middle of a nightmare and when they wake up, they will see the Sharon of old who lead the settlement drive in Judea and Samaria.

Sharon explains that as Prime Minister, the view from top is different. Perhaps it is also related to his own experience in the Lebanese war, which many say he also engineered as Defense Minister. Sharon, on his own worked out a peace treaty with Lebanese President Bashir Jumayel coming home to boast of how he had done this all on his own. Even Philip Habib, the U.S. special envoy to the region was kept out of the picture not to speak of Syrian President Hafez Assad. Within days, Syrian agents blew up Jumayel's headquarters killing another leader who dared cross Damascus. It's possible that Sharon realized that without American support, it is well nigh impossible for Israel to make any major moves in the Middle East. Another Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had earlier made this point.

On becoming Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon was faced with the unequivocal declaration of staunch friend and ally, in favor of an independent Palestinian state, once the Palestinians stop terrorizing and agree to live in peace with Israel. What options did this leave an Israeli Prime Minister with the rest of the international community threatening an imposed settlement? Either run into a brick wall and suffer the consequences or try and get the best possible deal under the circumstances. This is apparently what Sharon is trying to do.

Both Labor and Likud governments have led the settlers to believe they will remain in their homes in the territories for good.

Yasser Arafat led the Palestinians to believe that one day they will one day return to their former homes in Israel.

Sharon has now told the settlers that many of them will not be staying; Abbas has yet to tell the Palestinians the facts of life of their new political reality - that they will nor be returning to Israel.

One day, Abbas will have to, if the process now underway is to culminate in Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace.



Gen. Yaalon

Many viewers are asking why all the fuss over Defense Minister Mofaz not granting Chief of Staff Yaalon the customary extra year as Israel's top soldier. Unlike other countries, the name of the Chief of Staff in Israel is always a house-hold word. He is regarded as the man who is ultimately responsible for preparing the Israel Defense Forces to face any challenge to Israel's very existence, night or day, 365 days a year.

In the debacle of the Yom-Kippur in 1973, it was Chief of Staff David Elezar who paid the price, not Defense Minister Moshe Dayan or Prime Minister Golda Mir.Most citizens have either served or have a son or daughter serving today in the IDF which is still a People's Army, and the people do not like having their commander in chief humiliated in such a shoddy manner. It is hard to realize that Defense Minister Mofaz, himself the former Chief of Staff did not realize the strong public reaction to what is widely perceived as an insult to the Chief of Staff.

Mofaz has yet to explain why he felt it necessary to get rid of General Yaalon; that can be expected when he appears before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee next week. Committee members say they will demand an explanation.

Former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, now a Labor Cabinet minister says he is baffled by the whole affair because Yaalon was a superb chief of staff. The timing is also questionable because it will lead to a shake up of the IDF general Staff in the midst of the upcoming evacuation from the Gaza Strip.

Former Israel Air force Commander Dan Halutz is frontrunner to succeed Yaalon. If Halutz does make it to the top, it will be the first time for an Air Force commander. Halutz is considered to be a brilliant, charismatic leader and a favorite of Ariel Sharon. Mofaz may find himself in the shadow of such a Chief of Staff and rue the day that he decided not to keep on Yaalon.

David Essing

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