Smiling his closed smile, eyes half closed, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gazed yesterday at the MKs of his own Likud Party, one-third of whom voted no-confidence in him, and at those of the left-wing Yahad-Meretz faction, who supported him almost unanimously, thereby giving him the majority he needed to establish his third government: the disengagement government.
Only he knows what he was thinking. But one thing was crystal clear last night: The internal revolt against Sharon has crossed the point of no return. It is no longer opposition to the disengagement; it is a direct challenge to his leadership.
De facto, the Likud has split, even if on paper it remains a single faction with 40 MKs. Sharon's Likud has only 27 MKs, maybe 28 on a good day. Those who voted no-confidence in Sharon yesterday cannot easily return to the fold, as if nothing had happened. The prime minister has a country, but no party.
If the 13 "rebels" also vote against the 2005 budget, and Yahad refuses to support it, the new government sworn in yesterday will last no longer than the yogurt in Sharon's refrigerator - unless Sharon, the indefatigable survivor, manages to put together an alternate coalition for the budget.
Yahad behaved yesterday as its shrinking electorate would have wished: as a responsible adult. Without demanding payment and without undue shilly-shallying. But how long can Sharon go on this way? How long, as Yahad MK Yossi Sarid rhetorically asked the Knesset plenum yesterday, can Yahad continue to carry him on its shoulders?
Any Israeli government faces numerous problems and challenges every week, both in the plenum and in Knesset committees. Without a solid, functioning coalition, there will not be a government - and it is doubtful that there will be a disengagement.
The Likud rebels, with their surprise decision to vote no-confidence in Sharon instead of merely abstaining, are gambling on the most extreme elements of the Likud Central Committee. Most of the rebels are animated by personal grudges against Sharon. Foremost among them is David Levy, who led the hard line and largely forced his colleagues to go along.
Levy wants so badly to topple Sharon, who left him out of three governments, that he is willing to go down with him. Others made a cold calculation: Given the Likud's new method of choosing its Knesset slate, their only chance of reelection is via a group "deal" - and only the rebels have such a group.
If the rebels do not repent, Sharon's only reasonable option is to quickly bring Shas into the government. Shas Chairman Eli Yishai said yesterday that in exchange for "social achievements," he would not only join the government; he would be willing to do without portfolios, or even support it from outside. Sharon does not need Shas to pass the disengagement through the cabinet and Knesset, but he does need it for other matters. And he should have no trouble winning Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's consent: It is Netanyahu who has been pushing for Shas' entry.
One Likud minister said yesterday that the moment of decision is fast approaching. The Likud has to split, he said; the only question is whether it will happen before or after the disengagement. One-third of the faction will leave and either join existing far-right parties or establish their own. With giants such as Yehiel Hazan, Leah Ness, David Levy, Naomi Blumenthal and Michael Gorlovsky, who can doubt such a party's attractiveness to voters?
As for Sharon, he will either head a leaner Likud or realize Labor MK Haim Ramon's dream of the "big bang" - the establishment of a new center party that will sweep the board.
There is also another possibility: Sharon could run for leader of the Labor Party in the June 28 primary. One thing is certain: There, he would win big.
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