Sharon Buys another Six Months – Maybe

Israeli prime minister Aril Sharon’s victory over his longtime rival and predecessor Binyamin Netanyahu is unquestioned, notwithstanding its narrow margin – 104 out of a nearly 3,000 ruling Likud central committee members. In 1996, Netanyahu wrested the premiership from Labor’s Shimon Peres by a few thousand, but even an edge of one vote counts as a win.
The party’s senior body affirmed Sharon’s leadership by rejecting his rivals’ bid to bring forward the leadership primary by seven months and hold it in November.
This would have foreshortened his government’s term in office.
But Sharon’s triumph does not prove that the right-of-center party has embraced his guiding principles, as his spokesmen are claiming. The losing side led by Netanyahu and the anti-evacuation rebel leader MK Uzi Landau did after all garner very close to 50% of the vote, nearly doubling the Likud anti-evacuation rebels’ strength. The rift cutting through the heart of Sharon’s party since last year when he first broached his disengagement plan is more unbridgeable than ever. Netanyahu was rejected, but at least half of Likud has refused to change its ideological spots.
Sharon has been forced to mothball his personal plans. When he expected to lose the vote, he seriously mulled retirement from political life, while also under pressure to create a new party with left-of-center allies. Now, he must use every minute of the six months he has wrested from his party. The Bush administration has been waiting in the wings with demands to follow up the Gaza-northern West Bank evacuations by further pull-outs on a far larger scale from the remaining parts of the West Bank – and not just in word. At the same time, the prime minister will have to take into account the weighty opposition to his policies if he wants to carry off the primary scheduled for April, 2006 and run for a third term at the end of the year.
Monday, Sept 26, he got in by the skin of his teeth and some behind-the-scenes maneuvers that misdirected attention from the security escalation following the Gaza pull-back. Next time, he may have to work harder to win Likud round. The option of quitting Likud and creating a new party framework will hardly be feasible in the few months left for campaigning. Circumstances may not play in his favor. After shooting 50 Qassam missiles from Gaza in 48 hours, Hamas this week called a halt to its missile attacks on Israeli border towns and villages – in time for the month-long Ramadan which begins next week and for getting its campaign off the ground for the November local council and January, 2006, general elections.
But after January, Hamas and the other terrorist groups may well have other plans.
The Israeli air forces strikes over the weekend hardly damaged the terrorist organizations’ infrastructure. They were more deterrent than painful. The defense minister Shaul Mofaz’s cordon sanitaire plan for the missile launching sites of northern Gaza relies heavily on continuous nightly air force strikes and is therefore tenuous.
The Israel operation with the most bite was staged on the West Bank, rather than Gaza. For three days until Monday, Sept 26, Israeli troops, the Shin Beit and other security branches, acting on orders from Sharon and Mofaz, rounded up hundreds of operatives.
A close look by debkafile‘s counter-terror sources at the 300 detainees reveals among the ticking bombs and wanted men most of Hamas’s West Bank election campaign staff. Among them are senior campaign manager Mohammed Omar Hamdan from Bitunia near Ramallah, senior West Bank spokesman Hassan Yousef and the deputy manager in charge of organization and finances, Noah Rish. To keep them cut off from their functions, their bodyguards, aides and regional managers, were also picked up.
Sharon has therefore made himself a player in Palestinian as well as Israeli party politics. One of the side-effects of the Gaza withdrawal has been to intermesh the two arenas. The six-month bonus he won from the Monday vote is, in the Middle East, and at his age of 78, time enough for anything to happen.

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