- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

The security situation continues to deteriorate in Gaza following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw unilaterally. The Likud Party Central Committee’s 3,000 members will hold a referendum today with the potential to turn Israel’s politics upside down.

Officially, committee members decide whether to hold early party leadership primaries in November. This is the hope of Mr. Sharon’s opponent, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently resigned as finance minister in the Sharon government. Or the primaries could be scheduled in April, as Mr. Sharon wants. The vote on the primary date is understood by everyone to be a proxy for the candidate of one’s choice.

Speaking to American Jewish leaders eight days ago, Mr. Sharon said he had lost a majority of the Likud, and polls showed him trailing Mr. Netanyahu by more than 10 points. By Friday, however, several polls showed him behind by only two to three points.

If Mr. Sharon wins today’s vote, it would effectively end the Netanyahu challenge. If Mr. Sharon loses, however, there are many scenarios. Should Mr. Netanyahu win narrowly, the prime minister could remain in the Likud Party and attempt to sway enough voters to win a primary. But if Mr. Netanyahu wins by a wide margin, the prime minister may leave the Likud, which he helped found in 1973, and form a new party.

For now, he won’t say whether he will leave. If he does so he will be in a strong position. One recent survey showed him running as an independent and winning a bloc of 36 seats in the 120-member Knesset. In the same survey, Mr. Netanyahu would command 14 seats. The first result should be available in Washington by late afternoon.

The Likud vote is rife with irony: During Mr. Netanyahu’s 1996-1999 tenure as prime minister, he was sharply criticized by the Zionist right for making too many concessions to the Palestinian Authority, much as Mr. Sharon is criticized today. His decision not to run against Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2001 paved the way for Mr. Sharon to run, and he won in a landslide. The following year, Mr. Netanyahu ran and lost to Mr. Sharon in the Likud primary. Mr. Netanyahu later voted for the Sharon disengagement plan, and then opposed it.

It is no secret that neither man particularly likes the other. But even by the usual rough and tumble standards of Israeli politics, the current Sharon-Netanyahu battle has turned brutal. The prime minister contends that a Netanyahu victory would empower “radical extremists” incapable of leading Israel. Mr. Netanyahu and Uzi Landau, a powerful member of the Knesset and a sharp critic of the Sharon disengagement policies who might himself stand for prime minister, say Mr. Sharon is preparing to leave the Likud Party. In an interview over the weekend, Mr. Netanyahu declared: “If Sharon leaves the Likud and tries to steal the Likud mandates to form a left-wing party, I will prevent him from doing this.”

But neither man can be accurately described as an extremist or leftist. They represent competing visions on the right. Mr. Sharon has concluded that demographic and security realities and the lack of a viable Palestinian negotiating partner compel Israel to do what it must to make its borders and its population more defensible, hence the decision to uproot 8,500 Israeli civilians living among 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza.

To deal with the growing terrorist danger from Gaza, Mr. Sharon will rely increasingly on the kind of air strikes made on Gaza terrorist targets Saturday night in response to the 35 rockets Hamas fired into Israel. As the terrorist provocation worsens, Israeli troops might return to Gaza, much as Mr. Sharon did in the West Bank three years ago.

Mr. Netanyahu, we suspect, would probably do much the same thing. The critical difference on security matters between Mr. Sharon and his Likud critics is that the critics oppose yielding any territory in the absence of a formal agreement with a responsible Palestinian negotiating partner.

Likud voters will render their verdict today — in this round.

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