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Divided Israel

If Americans think they live in a politically divided nation, they should consider Israel.

It's not a 50-50 split that's rending the country, but a virulent verbal attack from the religious right. That passionate minority is trying to block Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

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The parliament votes on the historic proposal Tuesday. The dissent has become so ferocious that Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labor Party and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, says he's reminded of the atmosphere just prior to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Security around Mr. Sharon has tightened considerably as the Knesset moves toward an expected vote to endorse the dismantlement of Jewish settlements on land some Jews believe to be part of Israel's biblical inheritance.

"If you have a conscience and you believe in the law of God, you must vote against," Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has told the 11 legislators in the religious opposition Shas party, of which he is the spiritual leader.

The "law of God" - that's a powerfully persuasive argument in a country with a strong religious identity. But nations get into trouble when religion trumps the rule of law. Indeed, the Israeli army now faces a schism and challenge to its effectiveness because the religious right is encouraging soldiers to disobey commanders if they are ordered to remove Jewish residents from the settlements next year.

Fortunately, Israel is a democracy, and Sharon is standing firm on that foundation to garner support for his plan, which the majority of Israelis favor. Rejected by about half of his own party members in the Knesset, Sharon has reached out to Mr. Peres and others in the opposition for additional votes. Not exactly enthusiastic supporters (Labor is concerned the plan means there will never be a negotiated peace process for a Palestinian state), they nonetheless are lending their backing under the assumption that a half a loaf of Palestinian autonomy is better than none.

Religious debate over the size of Israel is nothing new, and neither is a pullback from settlements. In 1982, in accordance with its peace treaty with Egypt, Israel completed the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the Sinai Peninsula. At that time, religious conservatives also strenuously objected to giving up land, and some settlers had to be forcibly removed.

In a Nixon-visits-China sort of way, Sharon finds authority for his plan in his own reversal over the settlement issue. But his greatest leverage comes from relying on the will of the majority of Israelis themselves, as expressed through their representatives in the Knesset.