On the face of it, Israel has screwed up. Big time.
President George W. Bush went out on a limb for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He not only backed his plan for a unilateral withdrawal, but also reversed a decades-old American policy, and publicly endorsed Israel's position on its right to retain some of the settlements and its opposition to the Palestinian "right of return."
For this, Bush was roundly bashed by most American editorial writers and virtually every foreign leader. But the beating he took might have been considered worth it had Sharon parlayed Bush's seal of approval into a positive vote in a referendum on the Gaza plan held among members of the prime minister's Likud Party.
But instead of giving Sharon and Bush what they wanted, the Likudniks gave both a black eye, with a resounding 60 percent "no" vote. As a result, all those who dismissed Bush's historic move as dunderheaded diplomacy are now having a good laugh at the president's expense.
In the eyes of people like former President Jimmy Carter and others, Bush had foresworn America's supposed role as an "evenhanded" broker between Israel and the Arabs. Carter dismissed Bush as the most pro-Israel president in history, and he didn't mean it as a compliment.
The Washington Post spoke for the foreign-policy establishment when it editorialized on Tuesday that "Bush compromised the ability of the United States to serve as mediator of a final settlement. ... The result is a blow to U.S. standing in the Middle East."
It has yet to be seen whether Bush will stay the course. He rightly refused a request by King Abdullah of Jordan, still the State Department's teacher's pet, that the president rethink his position. But the king may wind up getting his own Bush letter that will differ from the one sent to Sharon.
Bush has also allowed Secretary of State Colin Powell to sign on to a diplomatic "Quartet" statement that contradicts the American commitment to Israel. Other statements from Powell prior to the referendum helped Sharon's opponents convince some voters that Bush's word couldn't be trusted.
But why did the Likud put Bush and Sharon in this position?
First, as many have already pointed out, the 60,000 Likudniks who voted "no" in a party ballot where only a couple of hundred thousand Israelis (out of a population of more than 5 million) were eligible to vote do not necessarily represent mainstream opinion in the country.
That's true. But, to be fair, the "no" votes in the Likud referendum don't represent a smaller percentage of voters than the few Democrats in a handful of states whose votes made Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry a finalist in this year's presidential contest.
The Likud is Israel's leading party, and its members may not be a true cross-section of opinion in the Jewish state, but they aren't any less so than a similar sampling from parties such as Labor that they trounced in the last two general elections.
Sharon was foolish to hold the referendum, which was an attempt to go over the heads of his deeply divided Cabinet. He may yet be able to undo the harm with some clever maneuvering, but the Likud rebuke is a slap to Bush that was both undeserved and strategically foolish for Israel.
Yet rather than merely say that the Likud electorate was stupid, maybe we should be asking why so many Israelis were willing to put Bush and their own elected leader in such a precarious position.
The answer is plain: They don't think Israel should be asked to make concessions at a time when the Palestinians are doing everything in their power to kill as many Jews as possible.
Few Israelis other than the 7,500 who live there want to keep Gaza. But as much as I believe Sharon's position to be a reasonable one and Bush's backing of him to be courageous I can't entirely fault those Israelis who say that handing over parts of Gaza and northern Samaria to the terrorist organizations isn't going to advance peace. Peace isn't at hand, with the Gaza plan or without it. The only question is whether more lives will be saved or lost by the withdrawal. And no one can answer that query with absolute certainty.
The settlement movement is widely reviled abroad, and even in many sectors of Israeli society, but the main impetus behind Sharon's defeat probably isn't Jewish messianism. So long as the Palestinians consider the murder of Jews living in the territories such as the pregnant mother and her four children mercilessly slaughtered on Sunday to be a legitimate form of protest, they shouldn't expect much sympathy from Israel's voters.
BLAMING A COUNTRY FOR EVERYTHING
What the "no" vote represents is also a revolt against the international opinion which claims that, despite everything that has happened in the last decade, Israel's moral standing is still no better than that of the Palestinians. The fact that the Palestinians violated the Oslo accords while Israel kept its side of the bargain is considered ancient history. So, too, is the fact that Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, offered the Palestinians much of what they asked for in 2000 and was answered with a terrorist war of attrition.
In the same Post editorial blasting Bush's move as "A Poor Wager," the paper opined that Sharon's plan was as bad as Barak's peace initiative. Their reasoning was that the failure to achieve peace was, and is, the fault of Barak and Sharon, not the Palestinians who rebuffed them.
What Bush has done is to assert that the two sides were not equally to blame for the lack of peace. But the chattering classes have created a political universe where Israel is at fault for everything that happens, including the slaughter of its own people. In that context, no wonder large numbers of Israelis have been left uninterested in any unilateral gestures, even those that might strengthen Israel in the long run. The "no" vote in the referendum was created by three-plus years of Palestinian terrorism.
The key to an Israeli majority for compromise lies in the hands of the Palestinians, not Sharon's advisers. Until then, the naysayers of Likud will continue to find themselves on firm political ground.