Sharon and Peres Engage for Disengagement and… Longevity

mg class=”picture” src=”/dynmedia/pictures/sharon_peres_e_thumb.jpg” align=”left” border=”0″>Neither prime minister Ariel Sharon, 76, nor opposition leader Shimon Peres, 81, stands to lose much by their partnership to rescue the tottering Likud-led minority government from being swept out of office. Alone, neither retains much voter appeal. Together, the two old warhorses are capable of wringing another lease of life from their reluctant parties. The horsetrading is already in high gear, trampling over policy differences and ideological distinctions in their forward rush.
As prime minister, Sharon is empowered to lay down the law on the shape of his cabinet. He will not pay too much heed to the loud party voices raised in protest against an unwanted marriage. Peres will compute exactly how many government portfolios are needed to buy his colleagues’ acquiescence, not forgetting to point out that Likud has bought Labor’s settlement evacuation platform. A few will hold back; most will enjoy being back in the saddle. Unlike Likud, Labor is top-heavy with a feuding, fragmented leadership and a dire shortage of jobs for the boys and even less grass roots.
Last month, Sharon managed to swing his disengagement outline through cabinet – only after the exit of four pro-settlement ministers. He had to resign himself to the settlement removal issue per se being deferred to March 2005 for a cabinet decision. By waiving their objections to the plan, Likud’s next-generation trio of finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, education minister Limor Livnat and foreign minister Silvan Shalom, forfeited their next-in-line positions and much credibility among the highly vocal party faithful. They made the mistake of deciding to wait for March to come round and then seizing the chance to challenge Sharon’s leadership by voting down the evacuation of all Gaza Strip settlements and four on the West Bank and thus recouping massive party support. But the prime minister looks like snatching this chance away by importing Labor and so packing his government with staunch pro-evacuation support.
March 2005 is therefore the symbolic glue joining the two old-timers.
Without Labor, the vote in cabinet and parliament would surely go against the issue on which Sharon has staked all his prestige: withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. With Labor, it’s in the bag – plus long-life insurance for the government from an extra 22 Labor Knesset Members on paper, barring about half a dozen dissenters. The Lik-Lab coalition supported by Shinui will command in theory 75 members of the 120-member Knesset, a comfortable majority – even allowing for substantial dissent in all three parties.
If the deal is struck between them, Peres may even persuade the prime minister to bring forward the cabinet vote on settlement removal – why wait till March? And so cut the ground from under the pro-settlement factions and their powerful lobby. After the bruising experience of treachery at the top of his party, Shinui leader Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, another septuagenarian, will go along quietly with whatever Peres and Sharon decide. The next maneuver may well be a snap general election to buy the three veterans another four years in office at the head of a durable government.
This troika could go all the way and form the nucleus of a new centrist party bloc that will isolate the far right and leave Sharon free to execute his disengagement-cum-evacuation plan unhindered. For the moment, none of the three parties can field convincing heirs apparent willing and able to take on the “old men.” Sharon will easily turn his back on the Likud rank and file. His natural successors at the head of the right-of-center national camp, Netanyahu, Livnat and Shalom, will be left behind, improving the prospects of Sharon’s full-time shadow, the highly unpopular Ehud Olmert.

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