Byline: Dan Ephron (With Kevin Peraino in Morag, Rebecca Sinderbrand in Kfar Yam and Holly Bailey in Washington)
Ariel Sharon likes reading political biographies, thick volumes about giants of history like Catherine the Great and Charles de Gaulle. Lately, he's been thumbing through Geoffrey Best's "Churchill: A Study in Greatness." According to Avi Drexler, a member of Sharon's inner circle, the prime minister has been pondering the ways his own political career resembles that of the "Last Lion."
Both Churchill and Sharon were responsible for military debacles early in their political years (Churchill at Gallipoli, Sharon in Lebanon). Both survived decades in the wilderness before reaching high office late in life. And both surprised as prime ministers: Churchill with his blood-toil-tears-and-sweat leadership in World War II, Sharon by turning his back on Jewish settlers and ordering their evacuation from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank. But Drexler, a lawyer who sees Sharon regularly, says the Israeli leader is also keenly aware of Churchill's fate: at the end of the war, an ungrateful public pushed him out of office.
For the international community, ending the 38-year occupation of Gaza could go down as Sharon's biggest achievement. At home, it's a huge political gamble. As troops emptied Gaza settlements last week more quickly than expected, national support for the pullout rose to 59 percent. But Sharon's standing in his own Likud party hit a new low. A recent poll published in the newspaper Haaretz showed Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish former prime minister who resigned from the cabinet on the eve of the withdrawal, defeating Sharon by 14 percentage points if primaries were held today. Though elections aren't scheduled for another year, Sharon's opponents in Parliament could soon muster a majority for an early vote, possibly by late January. "A lot depends on how smoothly the disengagement goes," says Hanoch Smith, a Jerusalem pollster. If Palestinians resume rocket attacks from Gaza, he said, the 77-year-old leader will have a tough time depicting the withdrawal as an achievement.
Such are the risks of bold leadership: what may change history for the better in the long run sometimes makes bad politics in the short term. Until Sharon unveiled the disengagement plan last year, he had presided over one of the sturdiest Israeli coalitions in nearly 20 years. The son of farmers who passed on to their children an almost mystical reverence for land, Sharon had a more intimate connection with Gaza than even many of the settlers. He cut a swath through the area in the 1950s as the commander of a unit charged with crushing a nascent Palestinian insurgency. After Israel captured Gaza in 1967, Sharon devised a settlement plan that was supposed to make ceding the coastal strip unthinkable. "He sat with us in the front row when we had the inauguration ceremony for Kfar Darom," recalled Sheila Rosenak-Shorshan, one of the settlement's founders. "There isn't a square meter of this area that he doesn't know from up close."
But as Sharon pressed ahead with his pullout plan, he lost key allies--first among the far-right and religious parties, then in his own Likud faction. Sharon's parliamentary majority now depends on the more dovish Labor Party. "We want to end the war with the Palestinians by reaching a final peace agreement," says Ephraim Sneh, who heads the Labor faction in Parliament. "Sharon wants to get out of Gaza and then stall the process." Sneh says Labor might bring the conflict to a head by demanding the dismantling of unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, long a sore point between Sharon and Washington. If Sharon balks, Labor would introduce a no-confidence motion in late October, Sneh says. "We went with him on a certain leg of the journey, but I think the journey is coming to an end."
The vote would trigger primaries in Likud and the race would be fought over impressions of the success or failure of the disengagement, which Netanyahu calls a "grave threat to Israel's security. …