- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) — (UPI looks at Israeli politics after Ariel Sharon's January landslide victory. This is the fourth of six parts.)


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is on a roll, dominating Israeli politics as only founding fathers David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin did before him. But where will he lead his embattled nation?

Sharon led his resurgent nationalist Likud Party to a soaring triumph in January's general elections, the first in four years. Likud literally doubled its representation from 19 seats to 38. Its historic rival, the center-left Labor Party under the hapless leadership of former Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, by contrast, plunged from a respectable 26 seats — and the status of largest parliamentary party — to only 19, its worst showing ever.

To add to the sweetness of Sharon's historic victory, Mitzna, another former Israel Army general, had clashed with him bitterly when head of Central Command and overseeing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Likud's domination of the Knesset, or parliament, is likely to grow even further. For Sharon is seeking to swallow up former Soviet dissident hero Natan Sharansky's little Yisrael B'Aliya Party into the Likud. The takeover would give Likud an extra two parliamentary seats and give Sharansky a foothold within the Likud, where Sharon would like to have him for two reasons.

First, Sharansky, an authentic national hero, could be built up by Sharon as a counter-balance to his own ambitious foreign minister, former Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu supporters did very well in the Likud's most recent primary elections, and that strength is reflected by their representation in the newly elected Knesset. Sharon, Netanyahu's historic arch-rival, could use someone like Sharansky at his side to balance things off.

Second, amalgamating Sharansky's party into Likud would give the ruling party a strengthened base in the politically active Israeli Russian ethnic bloc, at 700,000 strong, the second-largest ethnic Jewish bloc in Israel.

Sharon also continues to confound expectations both inside and outside Israel among his many critics by seeking to woo the center of the nation. The fiercest criticism he has received since his landslide January election victory has come from within his own Likud Party over his determination to still create a broad-based national unity government not dependent on the right wing and religious parties only. Indeed, Sharon remains the only major Likud leader to have publicly accepted the principle of an eventual Palestinian state, something Netanyahu and his supporters last year bitterly criticized him for doing.

But Sharon's relative moderation on this issue has stood him dramatically well. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post earlier this month, he told a caucus of Likud Knesset members, "I am not ashamed of supporting unity, and it obviously didn't hurt us. Maybe it would if we had only received 21 mandates (seats in the Knesset), you could complain, but we got 38."

Sharon's success stems from the surprising realities of the man. He has the reputation of being an Israeli macho hero, but he loves grand opera. He was a ruthless, even reckless and brilliantly successful gung-ho army commander. But for a full three decades, he has also been a cunning grand master at the amazingly complicated shark-eat-shark game of Israeli politics.

He was the driving force in creating controversial settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza for more than 20 years. But he was also the foreign minister who approved the Wye Accords in 1998 when Netanyahu was prime minister.

"Sharon has always cared for power far more than ideology," said the late Amos Perlmutter, a leading authority on Israeli politics at American University in an interview before his death in 2001. "If (late Labor Party Prime Minister) Golda Meir had made him Army chief of staff 30 years ago, he would still be a Labor general today."

As we predicted in a Dec. 6 UPI Analysis, "The tubby but tough septuagenarian Sharon now bestrides Israeli domestic politics the way no one has since the hey day of Likud founding father Menachem Begin a quarter of a century ago. But even he cannot go on forever. Will he lead Israel further to the right, or back to the moderate center? And will he be able to choose his own successor? And if so, who?"

Since Sharon's victory, the provisional answers to these questions appear to be that Sharon will remain committed to a tough, repressive policy against terrorism from Palestinian Authority-controlled areas and that he will continue to reject seeking any deal with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. But he will also resist the hard-liners in his own party who want him to go even farther.

Sharon has sought to favor Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, the tough, Iranian-born and highly capable former Army chief of staff. But Mofaz does not come close to Netanyahu's support among the Likud grass-roots members. The question is: Can Sharon succeed in building up Sharansky as a prospective Likud Party leader at Netanyahu's expense?

The odds seem heavily against it. Sharansky now is eager to join Likud precisely because he could not prevent his own little party from losing half its seats, plunging from four to two in the January elections.

It is ironic that Sharon won one of the greatest election victories in Israeli history after two years as prime minister which saw the nation's economy collapse and hundreds of its citizens, especially women and children, slaughtered in a no-holds-barred Palestinian terrorist suicide bombing campaign.

But the key to the paradox is that the Israeli public did not hold Sharon responsible for these disasters, but attributed them instead to the failed policies of three previous Labor Party prime ministers — Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.

Now Sharon faces the awesome challenge, after riding out the last two tumultuous years, of still resolving these enormous problems.

However, if the prime minister can crush or defuse the current Palestinian and fundamentalist Islamic terrorist onslaught, and negotiate peaceful co-existence with a neighboring Palestinian state as he has expressed his aim of doing, then he can name his own successor and rest assured of a heroic place in Israeli history.

The odds against pulling all that off are still daunting. But the 74-year-old prime minister does not appear to be deterred.

The tough old warrior Sharon, who was severely injured in Israel's very first war for survival in 1948, looks set to lead his country for the foreseeable future. Far from disintegrating during the past two years' escalating reign of terror, Israeli society has congealed and united behind him, prepared for a long haul with no quick or easy end in sight.


(Next: Why Netanyahu's eyes are smiling)

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