Although last week's polls predicted the results, Israeli newspapers didn't offer any pat projections of what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will do in the aftermath of the rebuke he suffered from his own Likud Party Sunday. Sharon sought the backing of Likud's 193,000 members for his plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. Only 40 percent of Likudniks bothered to vote, but of those who did, 59 percent said "no."
Ha'aretz offered six options for Sharon, ranging from resigning(highly unlikely) to calling for a national referendum or even new elections. As the dust settles, expect to see plenty of mudslinging, as evidenced by a Ma'ariv report that says Sharon may fire his finance minister, former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, due to his refusal to campaign for the disengagement plan. (Sharon's office denied the reports.)
Perhaps the commentators—and the rest of Israelis—were caught off-guard because, as noted in Ma'ariv, this was the first major defeat for Sharon in more than three years as prime minister.
Under the headline, "A Dramatic Defeat," the Jerusalem Post, which had endorsed Sharon's plan, editorialized, "In retrospect, the idea that Sharon could depend on Likud voters to ratify his plan reflected a fair degree of hubris. The plan, after all, is difficult to distinguish from that put forward by Sharon's rival in the 2003 elections."
The grisly roadside murder of a 34-year-old Israeli woman, Tali Hatuel, and her four daughters in Gaza Sunday at the hands of two Palestinian gunmen may have contributed to the higher than expected margin of "no" votes. Ha'aretz reported that Hatuel, who was 7-months pregnant, and her children had planned to spend the day lobbying Likud members to vote against the withdrawal plan, which would have forced them and 7,800 other Israelis to evacuate their homes.
Ha'aretz compared Sharon's situation to that of his predecessor, Ehud Barak, who lost his parliamentary majority when he decided to attend the Camp David Summit four years ago:
Like Barak, Sharon chose the path of courageous initiative by opting for political concessions, and like his predecessor he incorrectly believed that it was sufficient "to do the right thing" and get a U.S. hug in order to shake off the shackles of the local political apparatus, which has a chronic tendency to pull right. Sharon, like Barak before him, viewed his opponents as a band of dwarfs that could not rise to the hour and take fateful decisions. And Sharon, too, was left without supporters in the moment of truth.
U.S. Relations: President Bush has expressed his disappointment in the results, but Washington—which will continue to support disengagement—views this as an internal Israeli matter.
The Palestinians: The paper wrote that "Arafat can breathe a sigh of relief. Rejection of the disengagement plan will perpetuate the deadlock that is so important to him."
Economic markets: No harm is done by Sharon's defeat, but the paper noted that if there is a sense that he has lost control altogether, the markets will slump immediately.
Finally, Ma'ariv's assessment, shared by others, is that Sharon's political future is threatened by the outcome. The 15-member Shinui faction, the left-leaning component of Sharon's ruling coalition, may bolt, and the opposition Labor Party will push for new elections.