Following Ashkelon Kassam, coalition MKs turn on realignment

Knesset members from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima movement and other parties in his coalition said Wednesday that the Kassam rocket that fell in Ashkelon on Tuesday was a sign to Olmert that he should not implement his West Bank realignment plan. While Olmert has had only minor difficulties in maintaining coalition discipline and control over Kadima, MKs who feel obligated to be loyal to the prime minister have recently started to feel more free to criticize him and his policies. Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit, who briefly considered challenging Olmert for the Kadima leadership after prime minister Ariel Sharon's stroke six months ago, came out strongly against realignment on Wednesday. He said he supported Sharon's Gaza Strip withdrawal plan but that he would oppose withdrawing unilaterally in the West Bank. "I am against realignment because it is a bad idea," Sheetrit told The Jerusalem Post. "There is no point in giving West Bank land and receiving nothing in return. The Palestinians don't want peace. They will use the land to attack the Dan region." Sheetrit said he supported the Gaza Strip disengagement because he wanted to show the world that Israel had no interest in occupying the Palestinians. He said he still believed it had been right to withdraw from Gaza, but he warned that the world would not accept Israel's new border after a unilateral West Bank withdrawal. According to Sheetrit, the Kassam attack on Ashkelon "showed whom we are dealing with" and was proof that Israel should wait to withdraw until there was a partner on the Palestinian side who was genuinely interested in peace. Kadima MK Zeev Elkin, who opposed disengagement, said he had questions that needed answers before he would decide whether to support realignment. He said the IDF should remain in any evacuated territories, as it did for the four West Bank settlements evacuated during disengagement. Elkin said his main reason for opposing disengagement was that Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines and that, had the northern Gaza Strip remained in Israel's hands, the Kassam attacks on Sderot and Ashkelon would have been averted. He said he wanted to see how far from the 1967 lines Israel's new border would be after realignment. "If the IDF says that the West Bank withdrawal would endanger Israeli citizens, I would oppose it, but I don't think the prime minister would take a step that would endanger people," Elkin said. A senior Likud MK said that most of the 14 Likud MKs who shifted to Kadima secretly opposed realignment. Also within the coalition, Shas chairman Eli Yishai has said that he and the rest of his faction would oppose realignment if it came to a vote today. Meanwhile, Labor Party officials said the cracks in party unity were growing under Defense Minister Amir Peretz's leadership and it was not likely that the party could weather the storm of passing the realignment plan. Since the election, a number of Labor MKs, including Colette Avital, Ami Ayalon and Ephraim Sneh, have said they would not support realignment conducted without bilateral talks. While their words came during the infant days of the coalition, many Labor officials said that talk against the realignment plan was growing louder at party headquarters. "It you leave an area, and don't see to it that a stable power is place, than you are responsible for the chaos that ensues," said Sneh, who has long been eyed for the position of deputy defense minister under Peretz. Sneh said that he only saw Israel going forward with the plan via bilateral talks. "More and more Labor MKs will use realignment as an excuse to split with Peretz," said one Labor Party minister. "The funny thing is that under normal circumstances, Peretz himself would be screaming for bilateral talks." Since there is clearly no partner on the Palestinian side, the minister said, demanding bilateral talks was equivalent to stopping the realignment plan in its tracks. Last week, MK Matan Vilna'i sharply criticized Peretz's abilities as defense minister. He has continued his activity as a member of the Labor rebel quintet, which has continued to hold meetings and gain popularity among the party's ranks, according to a spokesman for the group.