Wednesday, September 15, 2004

  • Wednesday, September 15, 2004
  • Elder of Ziyon

Israel must brace for 'big bang'


WASHINGTON -- In Hebrew, physicists call the theory about the formation of the universe the hamapatz hagadol -- the "big bang." In Israeli politics, that phrase is used today to describe the potential realignment of parties and power.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to "disengage" from Palestinians now under the spell of terrorist leaders brought this simmering pot to a boil.

Sharon's plan calls for completing a security fence to protect almost all Israelis and pulling back into the well-defended territory the remainder of those now most vulnerable in Gaza and the West Bank.

Once a divisive figure, the former general is supported in this plan by an overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens. Like him, they are realists: Israel needs defensible borders and cannot absorb Palestinians nearby.

But 7,000 deeply religious and courageous Jewish settlers -- who live amid the 1.2 million Arabs in Gaza -- see this as a double-cross. Within the Likud Party that Sharon founded three decades ago, they are an admired force of pioneers. As a result, though Arik wins landslides in national elections, he loses to supporters of settlers in referendums within his rightist party.

The day of decision in the Knesset to adopt his disengagement plan is near. (Coincidentally, it will be in the first week in November, as elections are held in the United States.)

The level of fury and viciousness is worse than in the days before the assassination of Yitzak Rabin. Sharon, the lifelong embodiment of Israeli security, is being reviled as a traitor and threatened with death. Members of the Israeli Defense Forces are urged to disobey orders to dislodge settlers when moving day comes. Febrile minds in the settler minority even warn of civil war.

At a moment like this, Sharon expects members of his coalition Cabinet to speak out for his plan. They vote his way -- 9-1 in the Cabinet this week to richly compensate the settlers being moved -- but some of the Likudniks are keeping mum, lest they upset the hardest-line members of their own party.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who as Sharon's finance minister is becoming the Jewish Alexander Hamilton, has found a way to hedge. On one hand, he votes in the Cabinet for disengagement, even as his family denounces it; on the other, Bibi proposes delaying the November disengagement vote until a national referendum can be held.

That straddle has Sharon seething. He knows the momentum of battle, and sees delay as destructive. A referendum requires legislation, with lengthy debate, a probable filibuster and a wrangle over whether Arabs can participate. He believes that deviation from his timetable -- surrendering to threats of violence from within -- would mean six months of paralysis and a loss of the initiative.

I sent in a single query to Arik about Bibi's suggestion. An aide passed back his response: "I hear all sorts of suggestions, but not one word from him about the incitement to civil war. Not one word."

I think there will be no referendum or election before the Knesset vote to disengage. Sharon's plan will carry with the support of either the Shimon Peres or Ehud Barak faction of Labor, the centrist Shinui Party and Arik's followers.

Now let's consider the possibility of a political big bang. That convergence of forces on the disengagement vote could be the genesis of "New Likud." The anti-Arik faction of Likud would go its own way, hitching up with several of the religious parties.

My unsourced guess is that Bibi would choose the New Likud, which would reflect the Israeli majority. After Arik retires, like Cincinnatus, to his farm -- and with a new Palestinian leader ready to become a partner in creating a peaceful neighborhood -- the Hamiltonian Bibi would compete for leadership with the Sharon loyalist Ehud Olmert, former mayor of the still-undivided Jerusalem.

Thus, the Israeli system would have the gall to divide into three manageable parts, with the center party making deals for a majority with left and right. Not a bad way to run a parliamentary democracy.

Having had the chutzpah to predict the coming hamapatz hagadol, let me wish a peaceful Rosh Hashana to all.

William Safire's e-mail address is safire@nytimes.com

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