Sharon Appears the Struggling Dove

JERUSALEM – In the last two weeks, they have become the most courted, the most polled, and the best-fed group of people in Israel. For good reason: they hold the fate of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the ruling Likud party, and possibly even that of the state of Israel, in their hands.

These are the 3,000 members of the Likud Central Committee, who today will vote on whether to move forward the party leadership primary to November this year.

At face value the vote appears to be a procedural affair. Far from it: Sharon is being challenged by his bitter rival and former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned in early August in protest over the Gaza withdrawal and who wants the April 2006 date for the leadership primary brought forward so that he has a chance to oust the prime minister as early as possible.

A Netanyahu victory today could ultimately spark a fundamental realignment of Israeli politics, shattering the traditional Labor-Likud, left-right divide that has defined Israeli politics for the last three decades. It could also determine whether Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories ends with the Gaza Strip or continues in the West Bank.

It is not surprising then, that pollsters have been obsessively surveying this small group in recent weeks, and that members of the central committee have been living from one well-catered banquet to the next where Netanyahu, Sharon, and their respective allies in the party have been desperately trying to woo them.

The two leaders have spent the last 10 days doing verbal battle. While Sharon has accused Netanyahu of representing the hardline, uncompromising fringe of Likud, Netanyahu has shot back, accusing Sharon of adopting the political agenda of the Israeli Left. “Have we become the executors for the Peres-Beilin government?” Netanyahu said recently, referring to Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and the leader of the dovish Meretz Party, Yossi Beilin.

The most recent polls all give Netanyahu a lead, but it is slender and within the statistical margin of error. A poll in the daily Ha’aretz published Thursday showed 45.5 percent of the central committee in favor of bringing the leadership primary forward to November, versus 40.3 percent against. A survey published Friday in the mass circulation Yediot Ahronoth revealed a 3 percent gap (49-46) in favor of moving the vote forward.

Ousting a serving prime minister – especially one as popular as Sharon – would be an extraordinary move. But the central committee is more hawkish than the general public, and many members are angry with Sharon for having withdrawn from Gaza and uprooted the settlements there. They are even more angry with him for having ignored a referendum inside Likud in May 2004 in which his withdrawal proposal was soundly defeated.

Will this anger be enough to hand Netanyahu victory? Central committee members are acutely aware of the benefits that accrue from their party being in power and might hesitate when they get inside the voting booth, realizing that a vote for an early primary could spark early elections and the loss of almost a year in government (the next general election is scheduled for November 2006).

They are also avid consumers of the opinion polls, which consistently indicate that Likud would win many more seats under Sharon than under Netanyahu. The Yediot Ahronoth poll found that a Sharon-led Likud would garner 43 seats in the 120-seat parliament if the elections were held now, as opposed to just 29 under Netanyahu.

Most dramatic, though, is what would happen to Likud were the prime minister to leave and set up a new party: while Sharon would get 36 seats, Likud under Netanyahu would crash and burn, managing a meager 14 seats.

The option of Sharon leaving Likud – if he loses on today – has left the country’s politicians and pundits in a highly agitated state. For some time now, Israeli commentators have been predicting the “big bang” – a fundamental reshaping of the fault lines that characterize Israeli politics.

Several of Sharon’s aides, speaking anonymously to the media, have suggested he would interpret a decision to move the primaries forward as an attempt to depose him, and would leave Likud to set up a new party. The prime minister’s refusal to declare publicly that he will remain in Likud regardless of the outcome of today’s vote has also heightened speculation that he will bolt his party if he loses.

Even if Sharon wins on today, this will not extinguish the possibility of his leaving the party he helped found in the 1970s. Over the last 18 months, ever since he announced his disengagement plan, Likud has been bitterly divided, with a third of his party regularly voting against him in parliament.

If he runs at the head of Likud in the next election and wins, he might again find himself saddled with a parliamentary list that is irreconcilably divided on the issue of territorial compromise with the Palestinians and that will again make progress extremely difficult.

If Sharon does leave Likud and sets up a centrist party, it increases the chances that – unshackled by Likud hardliners – he will also begin removing Israeli forces from the West Bank and dismantling more settlements there.

Does Sharon, though, plan to make further concessions?

His speech Sept. 15 to the UN General Assembly provided some clues. In conciliatory tones reminiscent of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the eve of the signing of the Oslo peace accords, Sharon declared that the “right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them, and we have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own.”

But possibly most astonishing were his remarks about ending the conflict. Until now, Sharon has been skeptical of reaching a final status agreement with the Palestinians, believing only in a long-term interim arrangement. But at the UN his message was different: he called for an end to “the bloody conflict” with the Palestinians, saying this would be “my calling and my primary mission for the coming years.”

If he is to be taken at his word, then Sharon will probably have to achieve this goal outside of Likud. Judging by the moderate tone of his speech, which will have won him few votes inside the central committee, he may have already reached that conclusion.