- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

In the wake of his victory in this week’s Likud Party primary, there’s good news and bad news for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: The good news is that Mr. Netanyahu has made something of a political comeback, returning to the position he left in 1999 following his loss to Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. And Mr. Netanyahu (who no doubt regrets his decision not to run against Mr. Barak after the Oslo peace process fell apart in the fall of 2000, taking the Labor Party’s electoral fortunes with it) has finally managed to attain a political goal he has sought for years: replacing his political rival, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as leader of Likud.

(Mr. Sharon, released from the hospital three days ago after suffering a mild stroke, has resumed his duties as prime minister.)

The bad news for Mr. Netanyahu is that, in the wake of Mr. Sharon’s decision to leave Likud, it has become a shadow of its former self, and faces a steep uphill climb if it is to do well in the March 28 elections, when Israelis choose a new government. Mr. Sharon’s new, centrist Kadima Party (which also includes longtime mainstays of the Israeli left such as former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who had been a powerful force in Israel’s Labor Party since 1974) is right now the number one political party in Israel by far; the Labor Party, led by veteran union leader Amir Peretz, who upset Mr. Peres in the party primary last month, is second. Likud, which until last month had been the closest thing to a dominant party in Israel, now comes in third.

Two polls published this week suggest that if the election were held today, Mr. Sharon’s party would win 38-39 seats in the 120-member Knesset; Labor would win 20-21 seats; Likud would win 14-16 seats. In order to attain the 61 seats necessary for a majority, Mr. Sharon would likely need to form a coalition with either Likud or Labor, and win the votes of one or more of the small parties represented in the Knesset, ranging from Arab nationist and dovish parties on the left to right-wing nationalist and religious parties.

It is difficult to predict in which direction Mr. Sharon will go: His success in combating Palestinian terror and his willingness to employ targeted killings of terrorist leaders make him popular with many voters who lean to the right; on the other hand, the presence of arch-doves like Mr. Peres in Kadima, combined with the prospect of further territorial concessions, will undoubtedly give Israeli security hawks pause about supporting Mr. Sharon. And if the prime minister’s health worsens, it is unclear who would succeed him as party chairman, or what ideological direction the party will take.

It is reasonable to assume, however, that, at least in the near future, Israel’s security concerns — in particular, the rise of Hamas, the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, and above all the menacing behavior of Iran — will likely combine to push Israelis rightward when it comes to defense.

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