Sharon is no longer the winning sphinx of 2001. Trouble is chasing down the great lucky man of Israeli politics. The balls he kept juggling aloft are now threatening to crash down on his head and the forces that support his rule are now backing away from him.
Ariel Sharon didn't manage to mortgage his farm to the bank that loaned him millions to pay off debts from his primaries campaign in 1999. But as prime minister he mortgaged his rule to four powerful forces, which granted him the political credit that enabled him to survive. As his popularity slips in the polls and he loses the chance for a landslide, Sharon is now in political trouble, which has only deepened his dependence on his pawnbrokers and spells bad tidings for the day after the polls close.
l The support of U.S. President Bush has strengthened Sharon's rule to this day. In exchange, Sharon scattered agreements "in principle" and positive signals about a Palestinian state and the American initiatives, from the Mitchell Plan to the Bush Speech and the "road map," and refrained from expelling Yasser Arafat and reoccupying Gaza. That was enough for the administration to buy some quiet in Europe and the Arab world on the way to Iraq.
But what will happen on the "day after"? Sharon apparently believes that Bush will be busy with his 2004 presidential election campaign and won't want to clash with the American Jews. But if Washington decides the time has come to cash in the mortgage and demand a settlement freeze and a renewal of the negotiations, Sharon can expect to face a very difficult time. He knows well that the road map leads in one direction: to the internationalization of the conflict and the 1967 borders.
And as opposed to his rule that "there are no free lunches" in political life, he's been forced to ask for a huge aid package from the U.S. He can only hope the Americans make do with lip service about a political settlement, as they have until now, and not try to impose one.
l The Labor Party. The diplomatic crisis with Britain this week was only a preview of the kind of international pressure that will be applied to a narrow right-wing government. Avigdor Lieberman and Effi Eitam will never accept the road map as the basis for a coalition agreement and the U.S. will find it difficult to support Sharon as the head of a rejectionist coalition.
In any case, the Americans are expected to raise their profile concerning the settlements. If he wins the elections, Sharon will need a unity government to function. He'll try to buy Labor with promises for a precise implementation of the Bush speech (in other words, without the additions of the road map), on the assumption that even Amram Mitzna will find it difficult to flank the American president on the left.
Labor's decision to join the government will determine Sharon's political fate. The weaker he is, the more Labor will be tempted to remain in opposition, waiting for Sharon's collapse.
l The bureaucracy. As prime minister, Sharon gave a lot of respect to the centers of power in the bureaucracy and refrained from clashes with the chiefs of the IDF, the intelligence community, the police and the judicial system, which all contributed to the fall of his predecessors. In exchange he received "professional" backing for his war against Arafat and his refusal to conduct any political negotiations.
But in recent weeks, something has cracked. The bureaucracy is first to identity weakness at the political level. Suddenly, the chief of police is talking about organized crime penetrating the government, and then came the leak about a bribery investigation against the prime minister and his sons. The greatest danger for Sharon would be the paralysis of his administration during the long months of investigations and explanations, making every cabinet session take place under suspicion that its members are trying to coordinate their versions of the events.
l His colleagues in the Likud. Labor's departure from the government forced Sharon to turn to the arena he hates most, and to hand out political IOUs to his colleagues in the Likud. Shaul Mofaz got a public promise of the defense portfolio. The press reported that promises, hints of promises and proposals were made to Reuven Rivlin, Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor, Limor Livnat and Silvan Shalom. It's not clear how Sharon will manage to keep his promises, and form a unity government and cut the number of ministers. It is clear, however, that he won't be able to shove aside Benjamin Netanyahu, who meanwhile is the big winner from the scandals and investigations.
Sharon is no longer the winning sphinx of 2001. Trouble is chasing down the great lucky man of Israeli politics. The balls he kept juggling aloft are now threatening to crash down on his head and the forces that support his rule are now backing away from him. The question is whether this time, too, he'll be able to find another millionaire to dig him out of the hole at the last minute.