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Israel is facing a power struggle of its own. Sharon won Knesset approval for his Gaza withdrawal plan with the support of left-wing and Arab parties. But his right-wing bloc split. The crisis of legitimacy has shocking similarities to the internal divisions that shook Israel before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Some soldiers threaten not to carry out Sharon's orders to evacuate settlements, and their influential rabbis back them. The plan poses a dilemma for the religious Zionist movement at the heart of the settlement project. Its early rabbis decreed that Zionism was God's work because it reclaimed the land of Israel, even if many of its leaders were secular Jews. But if the Zionist state hands over land to the Palestinians, then, as some rabbis and their followers fervently believe, the state is no longer doing God's work, but Satan's.
The settlers view Sharon as a sellout. For years, he urged them to "grab hilltops" so that the land could never be given to the Palestinians in a peace deal. Now, says Arieh Eldad, a right-wing lawmaker, "Sharon is betraying everything he preached for so many years. He is betraying the people he sent to these hilltops, and they feel stabbed in the back. It may lead to civil war." While that's remote, a poll last month showed 7% of Israelis believed resisting the government by force of arms would be justified. Israeli intelligence fears an attack on the Prime Minister or on a politically charged target like the Temple Mount. "God forbid that anyone should touch the Prime Minister," says settler leader Levanon, "but some kind of violence will erupt under this stress."
In his own Likud party, Sharon faces political threats. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly backed Sharon's disengagement bill in the Knesset but then said he'd resign in two weeks if Sharon didn't agree to put the entire plan to a national referendum. Briefly Netanyahu threatened to run against Sharon for the Prime Minister's job, though his aides backed off that remark.
Sharon's next move may be determined most by Arafat's prospects for survival. If Abbas eases into the Palestinian driving seat, Sharon will face pressure to go back to the negotiating table. When Abbas was briefly Prime Minister last year, President Bush backed him and Sharon had to go along--until Arafat's backstairs maneuvers frustrated Abbas into resignation. Israeli political analysts believe that despite his condemnations of Arafat, Sharon was perfectly happy to let his old nemesis linger on in Ramallah, providing a flesh-and-blood excuse to avoid peace talks. A new Palestinian partner would force Sharon to decide whether he's truly willing to make further concessions to achieve a comprehensive peace. For both sides, that test could prove to be just as fateful as the treatment undertaken by Arafat's French doctors. --With reporting by Jamil Hamad/ Ramallah and Massimo Calabresi/Washington