Game, Set, Match to an Old Soldier

Since launching his large-scale operation against Palestinian terrorist strongholds, Ariel Sharon, his popularity rating soaring beyond 70 percent, looks set to becoming that rare bird in Israel’s political landscape: a prime minister who goes the full four-year term.

A general and strategist, he has just pulled off a political survivability maneuver that was little noticed in the fury of the battle. .

In March, his popularity sagging badly – in inverse proportion to the surging Palestinian suicide attacks that claimed more that 100 deaths in the space of a month – his foremost Likud party rival and predecessor in office, Binyamin Netanyahu, “Bibi”, and his defense minister, Labor leader Binyamin Ben Eliezer, put the finishing touches on an intrigue to abbreviate the government’s life.

Netanyahu and Ben Eliezer banked on two propositions that looked fairly solid.

1. Sharon would continue to resist the popular outcry for vigorous military action to crush the rising suicide terrorist onslaught loosed by the Palestinians. Netanyahu would then ease his way back into the Likud leadership in time for an early election.

2. Ben Eliezer would save himself from paying the price for Labor’s continuing decline under his leadership by promising his party comrades plummy posts in the Netanyahu coalition government. Defense he would keep for himself.

Ben Eliezer was to kick the scheme off by stepping down as defense minister – temporarily, he hoped – and taking his Labor party out of Sharon’s national unity coalition. The government would fall and elections scheduled for November 2002. Netanyahu would capture the Likud nomination – and the election – on an ultra-hawkish ticket and his Labor co-conspirator, with gains from the left, would sail back into the defense ministry before the year was out.

The plan’s shelf life turned out to be a lot shorter than they expected.

On March 27, a suicide bomber perpetrated the worst terror atrocity of the 18-month Palestinian confrontation – the Passover Seder massacre at the Park Hotel, Netanya, in which 26 Israelis, most over 70, lost their lives.

In the space of two days, 20,000 reservists were in uniform and the massive Operation Defense Shield rolling on the West Bank against one Palestinian town after another, starting with Yasser Arafat’s seat of government, Ramallah. The full Israeli government branded Arafat an enemy and condemned him to isolation at his Ramallah headquarters. As Israeli tanks cut him off from the outside world, most Israelis cheered them on, lifted out of months of despair over the relentless terror stalking their streets.

While the troops drove forward in one city after another, rounding up hundreds of suspected terrorists, destroying bomb factories, capturing arsenals, the prime minister quietly set his own devious counter-plan in motion – and not only against Arafat.

His chance came on April 4. President George W. Bush, speaking in the Rose Garden, stunned Israelis who had trusted in his support by peremptorily calling on Sharon to halt the five-day military operation in Palestinian cities, at the very moment it had begun to take effect.

The next day, April 5, Sharon pounced.

Suddenly, the National Union (7 Knesset seats) ministers, who quit the Sharon government in March in protest against its tame response to Palestinian terror, were back in their seats. Overnight, the pro-settlement National Religious Party, which had stayed out of the government till then, jumped in. The night before, its veteran leaders stepped aside for the sake of a much younger and fiery former career officer Brig. (Res.) Effi Eitam. Finally, former foreign minister and respected Likud veteran, David Levy, stepped back into the fold – and the government.

Sharon had quietly shored up the right wing of his government – avowedly to fend off potential pressure from Washington to prevent the military completing its mission of destroying the Palestinian terror machine. By this stand, Sharon appropriated Netanyahu’s highest card. With the extra ministers, he armored his government against a possible Labor walkout.

A fast learner, Netanyahu stepped forward there and then and volunteered for the national information effort in the United States, where he has become an effective Israeli spokesman. Ben Eliezer held onto the defense portfolio for dear life. Quitting the government in the middle of a war would have sounded his own and Labor’s death knell.

The defense minister’s Labor colleague, foreign minister Shimon Peres, learned this lesson to his own detriment during his brief tenure as prime minister after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995. When only a few months in office, young Laborites Haim Ramon and Yossi Beilin staged a palace revolution against his leadership, which coincided with a savage Palestinian terror campaign that targeted buses.

Arafat’s launched this campaign three years after shaking hands with Peres and Rabin at Oslo and declaring the birth of the New Middle East. It culminated in a bombing atrocity at Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv’s commercial heart, the more shocking because it was the first known instance of Israeli Arab complicity in a Palestinian terror attack. At the same time, the Hizballah sent its rockets flying from Lebanon into northern Israel.

Peres, while holding off the plotters, launched an unsuccessful raid into south Lebanon. Beset with terror, disaster and intrigue, his government fell after little more than a year in office.

His successor was Likud’s Netanyahu, who won a snap election on May 29, 1996.

Six years later, Netanyahu, hoping to scheme his way to a comeback, has found himself neatly outmaneuvered.

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