Getting Set for Sharon’s Exit

All the politicians who count for anything are looking actively past the Sharon era and well past the prime minister’s office’s farcical attempts to sack the two anti-disengagement National Union ministers who didn’t want to go. Transport minister Avigdor Lieberman was handed his pink slip in good time Friday, June 5, while exercising in the gym; tourism minister Benny Eilon made himself scarce to avoid accepting the letter 48 hours ahead of the cabinet meeting. He promises to be there and vote against the prime minister’s disengagement plan. If kept out, he will fight his dismissal through the courts.
A hectic scramble for post-Sharon positions is running parallel to the wheeling and dealing over the formulations to be presented to the crucial cabinet vote on Sunday, June 6.
With the two far right ministers out of the way, prime minister Sharon hopes his disengagement plan will squeak through the cabinet by a majority of one. To achieve this he had to bend somewhat. Go-between immigration minister Tsipi Livni hammered out one compromise after another. She aimed at separating the outline – to be voted on by the cabinet Sunday – from the actual evacuations of all the Gaza Strip settlements and four on the West Bank. The removals were to be approved piecemeal starting from nine months hence.
However, Saturday night, June 6, Sharon demanded an extra clause be inserted, a freeze on building and development in the locations to be evacuated – unless decreed otherwise by a special committee.
That proviso proved the sticking point for the National Religious Party. But, in any case, the haggling will go on up to the last minute before the ministers cast their votes.
This event happens to coincide with a key date in Israeli annals, the 37th anniversary of the Six Day War which ended in Israel’s capture in as many days of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Sinai, Golan and historic Jerusalem from Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
Sharon’s plan has the symbolic effect of turning the clock back to June 5, 1967. Therefore, even if he gets a mechanical majority for a pretty emasculated plan, his success may turn out to be Pyrrhic. Sharon will go into the history books as the first Israeli prime minister willing to remove Israeli settlements, for which he has won a gold mark from the Bush White House. He may well have created a precedent in Middle East terms. However, in the short term, the plan is likely to be crushed in the stampede to overthrow the Sharon government.
Labor and the ultra-religious Shas opposition parties are sharpening their no-confidence motions for Monday, June 7, depending on what happens in the cabinet. They may be pre-empted by the Likud parliamentary faction, the largest in the Knesset. An estimated 24 out of its 38 members no longer support Sharon’s leadership. The worst fissure the party has ever known is already visible. It no longer has much to do with the way the finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, education minister Limor Livnat and foreign minister Silvan Shalom, who lead the dissident camp, vote. The fact remains that eight out of the 14 Likud ministers are at odds with their leader’s policy turn towards unilateral land concessions to the Palestinians and the wholesale uprooting of Jewish locations with no quid pro quo. The Livni compromise formula will provide the feuding Likud camps with a pause for reflection – not a common denominator.
The two camps, whatever happens, are wooing the NRP.
For Sharon it is a matter of survival. After firing the two right wing ministers, he must show he is not completely alienated from the pro-settlement movement if he means to extend the days of his government and put off the evil moment of a split in Likud.
While the Labor parliamentary net for Sharon and his disengagement plan is being hotly debated, Netanyahu and Labor leader Shimon Peres are already talking. The finance minister estimates as better than fair his chances of setting up an alternative administration with a comfortably majority based on his Likud following, the NRP, the National Union, and the two ultra-religious parties, Shas and Agudat Israel. However, Netanyahu would prefer not to be labeled far right and is therefore looking at three additional options:
1. To replicate the Sharon coalition. 2. A narrow coalition made up of the Likud majority that deserts Sharon, the NRP and the ultra-religious parties. Aware that the anti-religious Shinui would not join this lineup, Netanyahu had a long talk Thursday night, June 3, with Shinui leader justice minister Tommy Lapid, after which Option 3 took shape: His Likud supporters, Shinui, Labor, the NRP, and the two ultra-religious parties – a broad front that could be presented as a national emergency government for digging the county out of its political crisis. Most of all, this coalition would be tasked with sustaining the early steps of economic recovery from the recession generated by the war against Palestinian terror, for the sake of which an early general election must be avoided at all costs.
If Sharon manages to cling to the prime minister’s office, a general election this year may be unpreventable.
Lapid, knowing Sharon has lost most of his power base, would not say no to an alternative offer, especially if Shinui could keep interior and justice plus an important economic ministry, such as trade and industry which Ehud Olmert, as the minister closest to Sharon, would have to vacate. However, Shinui cannot afford to be seen by its voters single-handedly propping up an administration dominated by right-wingers and ultra-religious groupings. Co-opting Labor would solve this dilemma. For the octogenarian Peres, this would be a golden chance to get back into government. He would sell the notion to his own party dissenters as a power-sharing arrangement with Likud, similar to his rotation pact with a former Likud prime minister, Yizhak Shamir in the 1980s. He would stress most of all that Labor would be reviving its traditional partnership between Labor and the religious bloc. As long as that alliance persisted, Labor and its predecessor, Mapai held the center of government.
Not all of Shinui supports Lapid’s line. Parts of this party, whose meteoric rise to 17 Knesset seats and solid place at the cabinet table in the Sharon government, was largely at the expense of Labor’s decline, will do their utmost to stall the revival of this alliance and Labor’s resurgence.
Labor too has its contrarians. Parliamentary party leader Dalia Itzik made it clear in a radio interview Saturday that she would a general election as soon as possible is the best way out of the crisis. Her object would be to block Peres’s path back into government and force a pre-election leadership contest.
All these maneuvers are well in motion, almost as though Sharon has become the invisible man. It is always possible that this flurry of activity is premature and the would be office holders have run ahead of themselves.

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