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JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF

Vol. 3, No. 23     3 May 2004


Why the Likud Voted No to
Sharon's Disengagement Plan

Ron Dermer


  • The main reason that Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan was overwhelmingly defeated in the Likud is that party members were not convinced that the plan would improve Israel's security situation. In fact, the majority of voters thought the plan was a reward for terrorism.

  • Voters did not consider the referendum a vote of confidence in Ariel Sharon. Sharon remains extremely popular within the Likud.

  • Voters did not think they were "slapping President Bush in the face" by voting against the disengagement plan, nor did the vast majority believe that a vote against the plan would harm Israel's relations with the United States.

  • Voters did not believe that a vote against the plan would weaken the Likud. On the contrary, it is far more likely that Likud voters feared that a vote in favor of the plan would split the party and alienate it from its base.

  • In sharp contrast to what happened in Madrid, the terror attacks that occurred the day of the vote had little impact on the outcome. If anything, the attacks only strengthened the resolve of those determined to vote against the plan.


Why the Referendum Failed

On May 2, 2004, members of the Likud party (193,000 people in total) voted overwhelmingly – 60% to 40% – against Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. Turnout for the vote was over 50%, a higher participation rate than in the last Likud primary, in November 2002.

Many outside of Israel may be wondering how a plan initiated by a hugely popular prime minister, backed by President Bush and supported by all senior Likud ministers, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could have been defeated at all, let alone by such a wide margin.

An analysis of a comprehensive poll of Likud likely voters conducted by Midgam Research on April 22-23, 2004, shows that the main reason Likud voters did not back the plan was that they did not believe it would improve security. This was clear in the answers given to the following question:

Please tell me whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement:
"The disengagement plan will improve Israel's security situation."

Strongly Agree23%
Somewhat Agree21%
Somewhat Disagree13%
Strongly Disagree40%
Don't Know/Refused3%

Despite assurances by Prime Minister Sharon and Defense Minister Mofaz that the disengagement plan would improve Israeli security, a majority (53%) of Likud voters disagreed with that assessment. There is also a clear difference in intensity between those who "strongly disagreed" (40%) and those who "strongly agreed" (23%) that the plan would improve Israel's security, suggesting that this argument was even more lopsided in the direction of the opponents of the plan.

In fact, rather than seeing the plan as strengthening Israeli security, the majority of Likud voters saw it as a reward for terrorism.

Please tell me whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement:
"The disengagement plan is a reward for terrorism."

Strongly Agree42%
Somewhat Agree12%
Somewhat Disagree16%
Strongly Disagree28%
Don't Know/Refused3%

Fully 54% of Likud voters saw the disengagement plan as a reward for terrorism, including 42% who "strongly agreed" with that statement.

A closer inspection of the data reveals that the decision by Likud voters to support or oppose the Gaza disengagement plan highly correlated with their answers to these two security-related questions. Over 93% of those who opposed the plan disagreed that it would improve security, and 89% agreed that it was a reward for terrorism. In contrast, 89% of those who supported the plan agreed it would improve security and 83% disagreed that it was a reward for terrorism. No other parameter tested served as a better predictor of voter behavior.


Not a Vote of No Confidence

In the waning days of the campaign, those in favor of the disengagement plan attempted to turn the referendum into a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Sharon. The logic for doing so was clear. Despite his spearheading the disengagement plan, Sharon remains hugely popular within the party, with 84% of Likud members viewing him favorably, including 44% who view him "very favorably." These numbers are remarkably consistent with opinions of Sharon within the Likud since he became prime minister three years ago.

Sharon's advisors were attempting to cash in on the prime minister's popularity by turning the referendum into a vote of confidence in Sharon. In the waning days of the campaign, Sharon repeatedly stated that "a vote against the plan was a vote against me." But as seen below, the majority of Likud voters (53%), including many who supported his plan, did not see the referendum as a vote of confidence in Sharon.

Please tell me whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement:
"A vote against the disengagement plan is a vote of no confidence in Sharon."

Strongly Agree32%
Somewhat Agree12%
Somewhat Disagree16%
Strongly Disagree37%
Don't Know/Refused3%

Wary of the popularity of the prime minister, those leading the opposition to his plan wisely decided against mounting a personal campaign against him. On the contrary, the most visible slogan during the campaign was: "We love you Sharon, but we are voting 'No.'"


Not a Vote Against America

Though some may try to interpret the election results as a slap in the face to President Bush and the United States, analysis of the poll results does not bear this out. By over 3 to 1, Likud voters did not believe that voting against the plan would harm relations with the United States.

Please tell me whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement:
"A vote against the disengagement plan will harm Israel's relations with the United States."

Strongly Agree12%
Somewhat Agree11%
Somewhat Disagree30%
Strongly Disagree40%
Don't Know/Refused6%

Fully 70% of Likud voters did not think that voting against the plan would harm relations with America. Among those who intended to vote against the plan, 78% did not think their vote would harm U.S.-Israel relations.

Moreover, the data suggests that the effort to paint a vote against the plan as a rejection of everything the prime minister received from President Bush failed because voters were not convinced that President Bush had actually given something important to Israel in the first place.

Please tell me whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement:
"President Bush gave Israel something important in return for the disengagement plan."

Strongly Agree16%
Somewhat Agree18%
Somewhat Disagree15%
Strongly Disagree32%
Don't Know/Refused18%

Nearly one-half (47%) of Likud voters disagreed that President Bush gave Israel something important in return for implementing the disengagement plan, including almost one-third (32%) who "strongly disagreed." In contrast, only one-third (34%) thought the president have given Israel something important in return.

While these results may shock those in the White House who felt the brunt of Arab and European ire over President Bush's historic statements that in effect opposed the return of Palestinian refugees to the Jewish state and the return of Israel to the 1967 borders, they will not come as a shock to Israelis.

Despite the repeated attempts by Prime Minister Sharon to present the president's statements in the best possible light, the Israeli press immediately downplayed their significance, suggesting that they left room for interpretation. This view was reinforced by statements from the American State Department that seemed to contradict the line coming out of the White House, as well as by the persistent rumors that the ostensibly unequivocal commitments made by the president would be "watered down" soon after the Likud vote in a letter to Jordanian King Abdullah.


A Vote for the Likud

In addition to attempting to turn this into a referendum on the prime minister and Israel's relations with the United States, supporters of the plan tried to suggest that a vote against the disengagement plan would weaken the party. As can be seen below, Likud voters did not buy this argument either.

Please tell me whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement:
"A vote against the disengagement plan will weaken the Likud."

Strongly Agree15%
Somewhat Agree14%
Somewhat Disagree14%
Strongly Disagree50%
Don't Know/Refused6%

The overwhelming majority (64%) of Likud voters did not believe that a vote against the disengagement plan would weaken the Likud, including 50% who "strongly disagreed" with this statement.

In all likelihood, most Likud voters believed that voting in favor of the plan would endanger the party by permanently alienating its ideological base. The fact that it was widely assumed that should the plan pass, a secular national unity government with Labor and Shinui would follow, only reinforced the sense among Likud voters that approval of the Gaza disengagement plan would threaten the party's base. Only 24% of Likud voters favored a secular national unity government. Nearly 70% preferred the current coalition or a coalition with the right-wing and haredi religious parties, the Likud's traditional political partners.


From Madrid to Jerusalem

While it became clear in the days preceding the vote that the plan would be defeated, the margin of defeat surprised most pundits. A particularly savage attack on the day of the vote, in which a pregnant mother and her four children were gunned down at point blank range near the entrance to Gaza, led many to conclude that the outcome of the vote was affected by terrorism. This view seems to be reinforced by the large gap between what the polls predicted on the day of the vote and the final results.

On the day of the election, Israel's two major newspapers, Yediot Ahronot and Maariv, published polls. Yediot, the country's largest daily, had the "no" vote leading by 3.5% (47.5%-44%), a gap which suggested that support for the plan was gaining ground in the closing days. Maariv, on the other hand, had the "no" vote leading by 8% (49%-41%), which according to their polls meant that the gap was actually widening. The final gap (20%) was well beyond the statistical margin of error of either poll.

Many attributed this discrepancy to the terror attack in Gaza that occurred the day of the vote, but this is only partly true. At the time of the last vote within the Likud, terror attacks that occurred on that day had no effect on the outcome.

On the day of the previous Likud primary in November 2002 between Sharon and Netanyahu, there were also terrorist attacks. In Mombasa, Kenya, a suicide bomber drove a car into a hotel lobby, and almost simultaneously, a missile was fired at an Israeli civilian airliner. Later that day in Bet Shean, Likud members were gunned down at a polling station. Yet those attacks had no effect on the outcome of the vote, and Sharon defeated Netanyahu by 15% (55%-40%), which is what polls conducted just before the election predicted.

Furthermore, the polls published in the newspapers on the Gaza disengagement plan failed to separate likely voters from all Likud members. In a poll conducted among likely voters eight days before the balloting, the "no" side was leading by 8%. Yet polls conducted at the same time by the leading newspapers of all Likud members showed the "yes" side leading by 8%. This suggests that at the time there was a significant gap between the opinion of all Likud members and those who were actually going to vote. Thus, the 3.5% to 8% gap among all Likud members predicted by the newspapers on the day of the vote was probably significantly higher among likely voters.

If there was any impact from the terror attack in Gaza on the vote, it was to reinforce the opinion of those opposed to the plan that it was a reward for terrorism. For those Likudniks who did see the vote as a referendum on Israel's resolve in the war against Palestinian terrorism, it seems clear that the message they sent was very different from the one sent by Spanish voters in March. If matters are left up to Likud voters, terrorism against Israel will never pay.

*     *     *

Ron Dermer, a political consultant who lives in Jerusalem, is a partner in Midgam Research.


Dore Gold, Publisher; Mark Ami-El, Managing Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Registered Amuta), 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Email: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 5800 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21215 USA, Tel. (410) 664-5222; Fax. (410) 664-1228. Website: www.jcpa.org. © Copyright. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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