Arik Sharon's face is lightly covered with perspiration as he addresses the crowd: "The people aren't tired, it's the leadership that's tired," he booms out over Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, packed with more than one hundred thousand supporters.
But wait--in the background, the faint but distinct chant of "Ehud Habayta--Ehud, Go Home," may be heard. Indeed, it's not Arik live at the rally in Tel Aviv, it's a video clip of a demonstration during Ehud Barak's administration, when Sharon exhorted the people to stand strong and resist the proposed land give-aways proposed by the Labor government.
The clip is a main feature of tonight's protest that brought more than 120,000 Israelis out to the streets (according to official police estimates) under the banner "Israel Will Not Bend."
The massive crowd packed into the central Tel Aviv square is unusually quiet. Apart from a few pockets of rowdy yeshiva students who try to whip the crowd into a booing frenzy at the very mention of Sharon's name, most people present--Sharon voters, to be sure--don't quite know how to react to the footage, or to the speakers who point to Sharon's apparent cave-in to external and internal pressures.
On the huge dais set up in front of Tel Aviv's City Hall, sit two long rows of cabinet ministers and Knesset Members. Many are members of Sharon's ruling Likud party. Ruby Rivlin, Gila Gamliel, Uzi Landau, Micky Ratzon, Ehud Yatom, Yuli Edelshtein--to name just a few. But prominent Likudniks Ehud Olmert, Limor Livnat, Bibi Netanyahu and Danny Naveh all choose to stay away in a show of loyalty with their leader.
English and Hebrew signs display both the disappointment and resolve of the dissident Likudniks who feel strongly that Arik Sharon has abandoned them and their traditional Likud ideology. "Likud Loves the Land of Israel, Not Sharon" reads one. Another picks up the theme of the rally with a banner that proclaims "The Likud Doesn't Want to Bend."
Beginning with a few moments of silence in memory of victims of Arab terror, the event kicks off with a poignant film clip of the remnant of the Cohen family from Kfar Darom. In November 2000, the Cohen kids sustained devastating injuries when their school bus was bombed in an attack widely believed to have been planned by one-time Palestine Authority security chief Mohammad Dahlan. With tremendous spirit and faith, the Cohens have rebuilt their lives with their children using prostheses to approximate a return to normal childhood activities.
Rabbi Ofir Cohen, head of this extraordinary family, is invited to come forward to recite a Psalm and the prayer for the well-being of the Israeli Army.
Speaker after speaker denounces Arik Sharon's plans to dismantle Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, citing the futility of anything resembling a withdrawal as a path to peace.
National Religious Party leader Effie Eitam reminds the crowd of how they had been the backbone of support for Operation Defensive Shield launched in 2002 by Sharon in reaction to the deadly string of terror attacks that culmninated in the Passover Park Hotel massacre.
"We'll support you again if you do the right thing," Eitam rhetorically tells Sharon. Citing Libyan leader Muhammad Ghadaffi's pledge to disarm, and the Coalition successes in Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein, Eitam asks, "After all that, is Israel going to let a terrorist like Arafat out of the mukata (his Ramallah compound)?" Are we now going to let him come out, make the V sign and declare victory?" Eitam asks. Boos and catcalls rebound to the stage.
Picking up steam, Eitam publicly tells Sharon that the people in the square will not be his partners in the destruction of Jewish villages or turning Jewish families out of their homes. " We won't go along with you in this. Peace does not require the destruction of Jewish life and property," he declares.
Tourism Minister Benny Elon draws reference to Sharon's speech of two years ago. "Don't think this people is tired," he says. " This is a people that does not want to be cut off from its traditions, its Torah, its history OR its land," he emphasizes, as the crowd roars their agreement.
Musical interludes break up the speeches--popular singer Shimi Tabori, a secular Sephardic artist launches into the lively, "Al Tirah Yisrael--Don't be afraid, Israel." Everyone joins in the chorus.
During the program, many foreign news media outlets come to get close-ups of the English signs that dot the front of the crowd. Many sign carriers are veterans of many such rallies and know exactly how to position themselves to take advantage of the opportunity to broadcast their message. Two slogans that attract a lot of attention are: 'Evicting Jews Won't Bring Peace,' and one directed at US Secretary of State Powell and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurzer that urges the two Americans to stop treating Israel as if it were a US colony.
Only one MK, the young, secular Gila Gamliel, a former student leader, brings home the point that this is not a "settler" rally. "We're all settlers--those in the center of the country, in Jerusalem, in Eilat," she states. "And who is my teacher and mentor in these matters?" Gamliel asks. "None other than our prime minister."