One Mistake too Many

The Likud for years had taken a steadfast position against unilateral withdrawals and the uprooting of settlements.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on May 11, 2004.)


Whatever made the prime minister and his advisers think that they could induce the Likud to make a U-turn on the subject of unilateral withdrawals? The Likud for years had taken a steadfast position against unilateral withdrawals and the uprooting of settlements. When Ehud Barak decided to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon, the move was denounced by one and all in the Likud, including its chairman, Ariel Sharon.

The dismantlement of the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure as a prerequisite for any other move had been the Likud government’s position for the past few years, and was incorporated in the “road map” of President Bush. No reward was to be given to the terrorists for their campaign of murder. And all of a sudden, in the midst of the war against Palestinian terror, an about-face? It was too much for Likudniks to swallow. That was the first mistake.

When Dov Weisglass met Condoleezza Rice and tried to sell her Sharon’s scheme for a unilateral withdrawal, she must have asked him whether it would not be better to hold the Likud referendum before Sharon came to Washington to obtain the president’s endorsement for his plan, rather than after his return from his meeting with the president. The president himself probably asked her that same question.

The imperturbable Weisglass surely must have told her: Don’t worry, it’s in the bag, Sharon will win the Likud referendum hands down. And she believed him. That was the second mistake.

Why were Sharon and his assistants so certain of approval of the unilateral withdrawal plan in the Likud referendum? The polls, the misleading polls. Since public opinion polls seem to be the guiding light for our politicians nowadays, it stands to reason that the Prime Minister’s Office asked for a poll of Likud members before recommending a decision to hold a referendum on the plan. And as was reconfirmed by the polls published the morning after the decision to hold the referendum, Sharon seemed assured of an overwhelming victory.

But the Likud membership had decreased by a third since the primary contest between Sharon and Netanyahu, clearly swinging the center of gravity of members’ views to more traditional Likud positions. Most likely the initial polls that were shown to Sharon were based on the original membership rolls. In addition, drawing a representative sample of Likud members is far more difficult than drawing a representative sample of the country’s electorate. Even much of the exit poll sampling on the day of the referendum, a relatively easy statistical task, turned out to be mistaken. Telephone polling has its deficiencies, and in any case the standard deviation for a truly representative population sample of 500 is not small. As it turned out, the initial polls were way off. So here was the third mistake.

By the time the polls were beginning to indicate a defeat for Sharon in the referendum, his supporters started to use scare tactics. They claimed that if defeated, Sharon would have to resign, the government would fall, new elections would have to be held, the economy would collapse, the United States would withdraw the loan guarantees, and God knows what else. It didn’t work. It wasn’t credible. It only served to swing more voters toward opposing Sharon’s plan. Here was the fourth mistake.

And after the landslide defeat, is Sharon going to stick to his commitment that he would accept the verdict of the Likud voters? This was a commitment announced by him to the assembled Likud conference delegates who approved holding the referendum. A commitment that was echoed by all the Likud ministers. Is he going to shelve this ill-fated plan? Guess again. The Prime Minister’s Office, as well as his deputy, let it be known that Sharon is not going to be put off by the results of the referendum, that he intends to go ahead with the unilateral withdrawal.

In the unbelievable hyperbole of the deputy prime minister, “there is no alternative to this plan.” A way would be found to circumvent the verdict of the Likud voters. That is the fifth mistake.

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