Is Sharon Getting Ready for Elections

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was strongly advised after Yasser Arafat”s death last year to divest himself of his unilateral disengagement plan – before it did for him. After all, said some intelligence experts, no one knows who Arafat’s successor will be – either in the interim or in the long term, and there is a better than good chance that the Hamas terrorists will sweep to power and carry the Lebanese Hizballah in with them. Security wise, he was told, there is no sense in pulling the IDF and Israeli communities out of the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, when pretty soon Israeli troops will have to go back; Hamas was sure to muscle in – not only in Gaza but far more dangerously in the strategic West Bank as well, and this terror belligerency will have to be scotched fast.
Therefore, the prime minister was counseled to take advantage of the transition in Palestinian leadership to make the evacuation plan bilateral, by putting it up for negotiation with the new Palestinian Authority regime. That way, the pullouts might take longer but by moving forward to peace talks with the Palestinians, Sharon would win points at home and cut the ground out from under its opponents internally and abroad. He would buy the time he needed to gauge the new Palestinian leaders’ willingness to lay down arms and their seriousness about ending the war, before proceeding with evacuations.
But the prime minister sharply rejected the advice of his intelligence chiefs. What made him see really red on the political front was the notion of putting his evacuation plan to referendum. Yet either step would have cooled internal opposition to his plan and saved him from facing allegations of recklessly relinquishing landed assets to Palestinians for nothing
Today, he may be regretting his stubbornness.
His Likud party is bitterly divided against him over the prospective unilateral withdrawals, his government’s lease of life may be counted in days and it is constantly buffeted by inimical winds from Cairo and Ramallah.
Although commanding a 64-member majority on paper, Sharon has been reduced to going cap in hand to solicit support for the 2005 state budget – or at least abstentions -from the main opposition parties, Change, Shas, Yahad and the Arab bloc. The rebellion within his own Likud leaves him a 53:67 voting ratio against the budget, a hole he is struggling to plug.
The only way he can ward off a final Likud split is to put the evacuations on hold and call an early election before the fissure becomes irreparable.
An early election will become automatic if the budget is not passed by March 31. The government will fall and a poll must be called within three months.
In the interim, Sharon will face another ordeal: the April 15 Likud primaries for prime ministerial candidate and parliamentary list. As things stand now, nothing is certain – neither Sharon’s nomination to head the list, that of his rival, finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, or rebel leader MK Uzi Landau. One dark horse is the coalition and party whip Gideon Saar. Aged 38, he shot to prominence in the last 24 hours by riding roughshod over Sharon’s resistance to a referendum measure and putting together a package that held the party together for the moment: Likud standouts in the finance committee agreed to support the budget in return for its members on the law and constitution committee backing the referendum bill. While neither measure may survive a vote in the plenum, Saar’s maneuver fended off the evil hour for his party.
But looking ahead, even if Likud unites under Sharon to campaign for re-election, there is little chance of the battered party attaining the commanding 40 Knesset seats it has today. Sharon’s bulldozer tactics in pushing through his disengagement plan, Netanyahu’s harsh economic measures that have created a new impoverished underclass and a new get-rich-quick elite, inept governance in many spheres and popular disenchantment with politicians per se – all these will have their effect.
But the opposition is in no better shape. Most parties and blocs are in a state of flux and there is no telling the shape of the alliances that will form for the election or their prospects.
Labor (currently Likud’s partner in government) may (or may not) join up with the newish anti-religious Change and peacenik Yahad to form a center-left of center bloc. Likud will have to fight off the nationalist bloc led by Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, as well as poaching traditional voters from the ranks of the anti-evacuation National Religious Party and the ultra-religious Shas.
The electorate has been transformed since Sharon’s last two landslide victories, falling essentially into four groupings: the roughly half a million Russian voters, who have solidified as the core constituency, the Arab vote, the religious vote and the communities residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip plus their following inside the country.
Neither Sharon nor Netanyahu need expect much from any of these groupings.
On the international front, Israel’s cabinet crisis will have a number of consequences:
1. Sharon’s April 11 visit to President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, will provide a handy kick-off for his re-election campaigns in the Likud primaries and general election. It will also paper over fundamental differences between Sharon and Bush on four critical issues:
a. The US president has made the 1949 armistice lines between Israel and the Arab countries – rather than the pre-June 1967 boundaries cited in UN resolutions – his key reference point for a final-status peace accord with the Palestinians. This is definitely detrimental to Israel and correspondingly advantageous to the Palestinians.
b. The US and Israel do not concur on the security barrier route in five sectors vital to Israel’s security: the West Bank town of Ariel; Beit Arieh – in Israel’s population center between Rosh Ha’Ayin and Modiin; Jerusalem; its satellite Maaleh Adummim; and the southern West Bank Gush Etzion bloc.
c. The US president wants to see further rapid Israeli withdrawals on the heels of the Gaza-North West Bank pullout, portending more domestic trouble for the Sharon government.
d. Bush wants a Palestinian state to rise with all speed, preferably by the end of 2005. Israel sees no promise of key roadmap clauses stipulating Palestinian security reforms and the dismantling of terrorist infrastructure coming to be in so short a time. Sharon had hoped the roadmap would slow the Bush administration and Palestinians’ pell-mell rush toward a Palestinian state. That hope has been dashed.
2. The Israeli government no longer trusts the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s apparent change of heart after several frigid years, despite cordial summit encounters and the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv. A bad impression was conveyed in Jerusalem by Egyptian conduct at last week’s round table conference with Palestinian terrorist chiefs, who were allowed to get away with rejecting a truce, and Cairo’s underhand diplomacy ahead of the Arab League summit in Algiers on Tuesday, March 22. Both activities suggested strongly that Egypt, far from turning away from radical anti-Israel Arab and Palestinian elements and embracing Israel as a strategic ally, is using the newly-amicable relationship to pursue Mubarak’s objectives, many of which are contrary to Israel’s interests. The Egyptians, after helping the extremist Hamas and Jihad turn away from a ceasefire, are now enhancing their influence in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Ahead of the Algiers summit, Cairo used underhand tactics to sabotage the Jordanian King Abdullah’s peace initiative urging the Algiers summit to approve confidence-building measures between the Arab states and Israel.
3. Sharon is already seen to have blundered in putting all his chips on Abu Mazen for bringing the Palestinian terror war against Israel to an end. Abbas never had any intention of meeting this expectation. By shying away from building power centers and mechanisms of governance and posing as a frail plant, he is allowing the Palestinian war machine to regroup and expand ready for the next round.
A new flare-up would place in question the entire disengagement project.
Sharon and his pet plan are therefore beleaguered on both the domestic and external fronts. He seriously needs a pause for reflection before deciding where he is going and how to extricate himself and his plan from the corner in which they are trapped. An early election could give him this pause.

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