Editor’s Notes: Off to the political circus

By David Horovitz September 2, 2005

In private it is said Sharon would bolt the Likud and set up a new party rather than risk losing the leadership to Netanyahu – that he will set out a clear vision of Israeli borders in the West Bank in line with the security barrier with minor additions, and that the dire historical precedents concerning failed new party ventures need not cause too much dismay given that the would-be party chief this time is a popular, serving prime minister

From any kind of distance, it must appear almost incomprehensible.

This, surely, should be Ariel Sharon’s finest hour. Everything has panned out as well as he could possibly have hoped.

The plan he conceived to withdraw from Gaza – removing 8,000 settlers and the military infrastructure around them – is nearing its completion. The hard part, the enforced ouster of Israeli civilians whom he had himself always encouraged to make homes in land captured in the Six Day War, was achieved – and how striking the symmetry – in just six days, too. And it was achieved with, from Sharon’s point of view, the perfect mixture of heroism, hysteria, dignity, thuggery, restraint and invective.

On-the-ground opposition and resistance were sufficiently robust as to underline to a briefly interested world that this was a terrible wrench indeed. And the orders had filtered safely down from the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure that every one of the local and visiting journalists was afforded a grandstand view of the dislocation.

But even the worst of the isolated confrontations was not so tearing as to constitute the marker the Yesha leadership had so hoped to lay down, the marker that would rule future withdrawals from parts of Judea and Samaria as simply untenable.

The army did not fracture; the officers and the rank and file proved entirely able to withstand pressure to refuse orders. The overwhelming majority of settlers bleakly accepted their fate; the subsequent despair of many at the alternative housing offered, though evidence for Sharon of an irritating failure by the Sela Disengagement Authority, is doubtless perceived as a relatively marginal hiccup that can be speedily addressed and corrected.

However improbable it may have seemed at some points, he kept his coalition together and thwarted the ‘rebels’ within his own Likud. And his most potent political rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, resigned too late to block the laws enabling disengagement, and long after alienating many of Greater Israel’s most passionate advocates.

As the settlers were ferried out, the international plaudits flowed in – not only from the United States and the currently British-headed European Union, but also from the Arab world and, whisper it in amazement, even the United Nations. Then, on Thursday, with its new readiness for open contacts with Israel, Pakistan provided the icing on the cake.

Within Israel, too, the prime minister’s personal popularity is healthy. As divided a country as ours can rarely claim to have a ‘Mr. Israel,’ but Sharon, though utterly reviled on the traditional Right and only temporarily tolerated on the Left, may nonetheless reasonably claim to be more consensual a political figure than any other at present.

And yet, in the space of just these few days since that metal cage swung the resisters off the roof of Sa- Nur’s fortress on Tuesday of last week, Sharon’s political fortunes have crumbled like the walls of a thousand Gaza settler homes.

To speak to some of Sharon’s long-term Likud critics this week was to hear a new tone along with the familiar anger. The tone of derision. An almost chuckling conviction that it was long and it was dark, but the prime minister had had his day.

Netanyahu’s overly choreographed gathering on Tuesday to confirm his never-doubted leadership ambitions may have misfired a little. Unsalutary punch-ups and the microphone outages aside, he would also do well to tell his adviser Yehiel Leiter not to frantically work the logistical wheels from so intrusive and prominent a position directly behind the speaker. But the event certainly registered.

To many of those watching less than spellbound, the candidate’s would-be casual reference to Silvan Shalom’s sterling service as pre-Bibi finance minister may have sounded too blatant and insincere a bury-the-hatchet call to a potential rival. The apologetic acknowledgement that he had failed last time as prime minister to heal the country may have been undermined by the lack of specific exposition of how he might do better next time.

But on Tuesday, as will be the case for the next few weeks, the less-than-spellbound were not Netanyahu’s target. His focus for now is ensuring that members of the Likud central committee back him in voting for an early leadership race, and that the party then does what to that distant viewer might be hard to fathom – oust the only prime minister in recent memory to win reelection, and the man who, in so doing, doubled the Likud’s Knesset representation and transformed it from the rightist parallel of the dying Labor party into the only realistic party of government.

For all the domestic popularity and international kudos, the portents for Sharon are not particularly good. Yes, Netanyahu relinquished 80 percent of Hebron, released Sheikh Yassin and signed the Wye accords. But all that was seven and eight years ago. Sharon, much more recently, ignored the central committee’s commitment to a party platform outlawing Palestinian statehood (2002) and defied the national membership’s referendum vote against his Gaza withdrawal (2004). And while the most principled Rightists might look to Uzi Landau as a more reliable defender of Judea and Samaria than either of this battling pair, Landau won’t be able to defend anything if he isn’t running the country, and he has no chance whatsoever of getting elected.

With a super-volatile public that, not many years ago, polled happily for Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and then Yitzhak Mordechai as prime minister, surveys must be taken with kilos of salt. Netanyahu looks to have a strong advantage over Sharon in the Likud central committee, but there may be many there who would be swayed were the belief to take hold that only Sharon can guarantee reelection and a sizable Knesset faction. And there are many, too, who are waiting to take their cue from central committee favorites like Tzahi Hanegbi and Shalom. Netanyahu brought a dozen or so Likud Knesset members to his event last Tuesday, but most of the front-rank opinion-shapers have yet to make their preference clear on the issue of whether to hold a leadership battle now.

Belatedly realizing that a threat to bolt the party is more likely to prove self-fulfilling than restorative, Sharon is now publicly pledging that he is ‘staying in the Likud’ unless Moshe Feiglin rises to the helm. The prime minister knows better than most the dangers of striking out alone, even from a position of tremendous popularity. His bid to establish the Shlomtzion party as a heavyweight political force in 1976 ended in a failure even more pathetic than that of the Mordechai-Shahak-Meridor-Milo centrist bid six years ago, and he was reduced to begging Menachem Begin to let him back into the Likud when Begin took power in 1977.

Still, behind the scenes, there’s a different tune being sung. In private it is said that Sharon will indeed bolt the Likud rather than risk losing to Netanyahu if he cannot stave off a leadership race, that he will set out a clear vision of Israeli borders in the West Bank in line with the security barrier with minor additions, and that the dire historical precedents concerning failed new party ventures need not cause too much dismay given that the would-be party chief this time is a popular, serving prime minister.

Another of those potentially unreliable polls a few weeks ago indicated that a great big centrist alliance – uniting Sharon and Likud acolytes such as Ehud Olmert with Tommy Lapid’s Shinui and Shimon Peres’s Labor – would sweep to power. But there is no political structure capable of accommodating that many egos. And Peres has already made plain that he is being seduced, for the umpteenth time, by other surveys that show him capable of defeating Netanyahu. Tantalizingly close to yet another unlikely, and doubtless ill-fated, tilt at the prime ministership, he is not contemplating merging Labor with anyone.

More importantly, the assessment is that a Sharon-Lapid-Peres alliance would garner far fewer seats than their three parties would win separately; each would alienate some of the others’ potential voters. So why harm the chances of forming a governing coalition after general elections by unnecessarily organizing the alliance beforehand?

AS ISRAEL now slides headlong into what may be many months of debilitating political infighting, one central factor remains unchanged – the capacity for Palestinian action, and inaction, to remake our public opinion in the space of a bomb blast.

The four suicide bombings that killed 60 Israelis in little more than a week in February-March 1996 proved the key element in Peres’s failure to secure reelection after the Rabin assassination. Netanyahu’s very success in presiding over three subsequent all-but terror-free years, in turn, ironically persuaded the Israeli public to oust him and take another chance on peacemaking with Yasser Arafat. And Arafat’s resort to terror after rejecting Ehud Barak’s Camp David overtures, in turn, paved the way for Sharon’s late-life grasp of the prime ministerial role only he had always believed might one day come his way.

The Palestinian leadership of today is sometimes surprisingly ready to try to distance itself from the Arafat era. In Ramallah on the eve of the Gaza pullout, in a visit organized by the Media Line news agency, Mahmoud al-Labadi, the director-general of the Palestinian Legislative Council, volunteered to me that ‘Arafat was not decent. He spoke peace and gave money for shooting. He made mistakes.

‘You can’t play games with the Israelis,’ Labadi went on, adding with remarkable candor, ‘they are not like the Europeans.

‘We gave up on him before you did,’ he asserted. ‘We’re glad that he is gone. And now we have a new man. He may not be so charismatic but he’s honest and decent.’

But the new man, whether honest and decent or not, has unarguably proved unprepared thus far to even try to deprive the Palestinian terror gangs of the freedom and the equipment to mount bombings as and when they choose.

Labadi pledged that the PA would ‘keep control in Gaza and the world will see that we are not terrorists.’ But in an excuse more implausible than anything even he has previously offered to justify inaction, the PA’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat straight-facedly told a visiting American group this week, two of the participants informed me later, that the PA couldn’t fight terror because ‘we don’t have any bullets.’

We were spared a major suicide bombing in Beersheba this week only because two security guards, knowing full well that they might die in the attempt, chased down the bomber and forced him to detonate in the open air rather than on a bus. Intelligence warnings of planned attacks are on the rise.

Every Palestinian leader, from relative moderate to Islamic extremist, is adamant that ‘Gaza first’ cannot and will not be ‘Gaza only.’

It is the way that agenda plays out over the next few months that will determine the political fates of Sharon, Netanyahu and thus the other would-be kings, and the nature of Israel’s next government.

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