Sharon After Gaza

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Has the Gaza withdrawal strengthened or weakened former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bid to oust Ariel Sharon as leader of Likud, and as prime minister?

Israeli observers believe Netanyahu miscalculated by challenging Sharon now. Netanyahu has argued that the withdrawal from Gaza will lead to a big increase in terrorism launched from the Gaza Strip. But moving the Likud party primaries forward to November in the hope of capitalizing on ill-feelings within the party, as his supporters did this week, could be a problem for him. On the old schedule — Likud primaries had been scheduled for spring, ahead of a November general election — the electorate would have a better chance of knowing whether Sharon or Netanyahu had been right about terrorism and Gaza. Currently, Hamas says it'll maintain the "calm" it promised to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas until January. Unless there's a big wave of terror, Sharon won't be compelled to send troops back into Gaza, which would of course be a measure for many Israeli voters of the success or failure of the "disengagement." There's still, of course, the chance that Sharon will leave the Likud before its members kick him out. He'd then form a new party with some of the centrist parties and the Labor Party. That now looks a likely scenario, because the polls have Sharon a clear loser to Netanyahu within the Likud, while much more popular with the general public.

Sharon is now talking about more West Bank settlements being evacuated — even mentioning "final status" talks with the Palestinians. Is he anticipating renewed talks any time soon, or planning to take new unilateral steps towards his own idea of where final boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians should be drawn?

Sharon's prepared to hold talks here and there, but the essence of his plan is seen as being based on further unilateral steps. Gaza was a unilateral withdrawal and, in so far as it was less troublesome for Israeli society than many feared, it went well. In an Israeli television interview this week, Sharon said other settlements would have to go in the end, but nothing on the scale of Gaza. Ultimately it looks like he's certainly thinking of his West Bank fence, which isn't finished yet, as the border that he'll create unilaterally, along with some kind of security zone in the Jordan Valley.

What's happening on the Palestinian side in Gaza? On early indications, is it possible to say whether Hamas or Fatah has gained more ground out of Israel's departure?

Hamas is the big winner in the withdrawal. The perception of ordinary Palestinians is that the Israelis ran away from Hamas. The fact that it was a unilateral withdrawal is taken by those same Palestinians as evidence that negotiations by the Palestinian Authority don't get such good results as Hamas's violence. Now, leaders of Hamas's military wing say they'll chase the Israelis out of the West Bank in the end, the same way they pushed them out of Gaza.

When Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, its soldiers went quickly and left behind a lot of infrastructure that Hizballah used to give the impression of a hasty Israeli flight. Many Israeli rightists believe that the apparent flight from Lebanon caused the Palestinian intifadeh, which began later in 2000, by suggesting to the Palestinian leadership that Israel's steadfastness in the face of a fight was waning. This time, the commanders of the Israeli "disengagement" are determined not to leave anything behind. Each concrete block from military posts is marked and slated for removal.