Friday, Aug. 20, 2004

Go ahead, Sharon, pull us out of Gaza

JERUSALEM -- On Wednesday, the Tel Aviv Police issued a special warning to the local residents. For a change, it wasn't about a threat of a potential suicide bomber but about traffic jams expected to result from two events scheduled for the same evening. The first was the annual beer festival, known for its huge and animated crowds; the second was the Likud convention, where members of the ruling party were to discuss Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to broaden his government coalition to have a greater support for his plan to pull out of Gaza.

While my heart truly went out to the beer festival, I was nevertheless glued to the TV screen, watching the Likud event closely, even zapping between channels to get a piece of furious speech here or a glimpse of a heated debate there.

I am not exactly a Likud fan. Why, then, waste my time like that? Because since last December, when Sharon declared his plan to evacuate Gaza unilaterally, I became his supporter. Although I hadn't voted for him, once he adopted a strategy that would best serve the interests of Israel, I started to have a keen interest in his success.

I'm not the only reformed Sharon supporter around. According to the June 2004 Peace Index, a project of the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University and headed by Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann, there is high support -- 68 percent -- for Sharon's plan of unilateral disengagement from Gaza. This is not a temporary whim: According to previous surveys, the support for pulling out of Gaza has been consistent over the years.

Yet Sharon, usually a smart politician, failed in harnessing this support to his plan. In a strange move, he brought the case before only registered members of his own Likud Party, who, in turn, rejected his plan. It may look kosher, but it isn't. It's as if President Bush asked only registered Republicans whether or not to pull out of Iraq, when the issue concerns all Americans.

Then, on Wednesday, Sharon failed again. In the packed Tel Aviv music hall, which otherwise is accustomed to the sweet tunes of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, the angry members of the Likud central body voted against his proposal to invite the Labor Party to join his government. Sharon later declared that he intended to defy the resolution and continue with his attempts to broaden his coalition. Commentators, however, start doubting whether he is still capable of moving the over-laden political carriage ahead.

Sharon should stop meddling with the bunch of extremists who constitute the center of his party and start looking at all Israelis as his power base. According to all public opinion polls, Sharon's plan gains support not only among the majority of Israelis, but even Likud voters at large are much more supportive of it than the people who shouted abuses at him on Wednesday night.

''There are times in the life of a nation,'' Sharon said in his speech that night, ''when it must make grave decisions.'' He was interrupted by hecklers in the hall, but I, and many others who had watched him speak over the TV screens, could hear him loud and clear.

Go ahead, Mr. Sharon. You have many more supporters than what the scene on Wednesday could suggest. Go ahead and pull us out of Gaza, so that we can gain some peace. When this happens, I promise to report about the beer festival.

Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.