Background/Gaza deadline: crunch time for unity government
At this point, Sharon has little option but to put his money on a unity government. But in his long steeplechase out of Gaza, Sharon's most immediate barriers are a maze of obstacles standing between him and a stable ruling coalition.
With a tissue-thin parliamentary majority, Ariel Sharon lacks the horses to make his disengagement proposal a reality.
At this point in his premiership, with new elections a risky prospect at best, he has little option but to put his money on a unity government.
In his long steeplechase out of the Gaza Strip, Sharon's most immediate barriers are a maze of obstacles standing between him and a stable ruling coalition.
The obstacles fall into two general categories: jockeying for position within the hierarchy of Sharon's Likud, and the seething antipathy which regularly prompts key potential coalition partners to take the whip to one another.
Sharon's most pressing concern is simple. Will his Likud let it happen?
THE LIKUD 'REBELS'
Feverish backroom activity within Sharon's contentious party is likely to burst into the open within the next seven days, as the Likud prepares to convene a full-blown party conference on Wednesday.
At the heart of the conference will be a decision over Labor joining a Likud-led unity government. Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, the ranking Likud rebel, is expected to try to force a formal vote over a Likud-Labor alliance.
The rebels, who are sworn to scuttle the disengagement, might effectively achieve their goal if they can succeed in blocking a unity government anchored by the Knesset's two largest parties.
A conference vote would not be binding on Sharon, but a defeat at the conference could sap vital intra-party strength when the question of Labor joining the government faces a crucial later test in the Knesset.
If, as Sharon would prefer, Labor would be willing to join the coalition, the second largest party in Knesset strength would likely demand a high price in the quantity and quality of cabinet posts it would assume.
Any shift in the allocation of senior posts could have serious consequences for Sharon's future and that of the disengagement plan, as this would directly affect the relative political strength of each of the pretenders to Sharon's crown: Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Repeatedly outmaneuvered by the underestimated Sharon after then-prime minister Netanyahu's defeat in the 1999 elections, Netanyahu's subsequent appointment as finance minister appeared to be another political trap. But Netanyahu has staked his comeback on an economic recovery based on tough budget cuts, gambling that growth will offset anger among the disadvantaged over slashed social services.
Some analysts suggest that Netanyahu, whose budget policies have proven unpopular in recent opinion polls, might be better served politically by ultimately - and with great apparent sacrifice - agreeing to bow out of the treasury.
But Netanyahu - whose support for the disengagement has never gone beyond the tepid - is likely to agree to be dislodged from the influential treasury position only if he can be promised another high-level post, such as that of foreign minister, currently occupied by:
The more vocal of Shalom's supporters within the Likud have vowed to wage "World War III" if Sharon tries to offer Labor Chairman Shimon Peres the position Peres filled in the Likud-Labor coalition of 2001-2003, the foreign ministry.
Some Likud "rebels" staunchly opposed to the disengagement view a battle to keep Shalom in the foreign ministry as a means to keep the withdrawal from moving forward. They have also hinted as playing the "ethnic" card, as Shalom, of Tunisian descent, is widely seen as the ranking Sephardi in the Likud leadership.
A career soldier with no prior experience in politics, former army chief Mofaz was "parachuted" by Sharon into the defense ministry without climbing the political ladder or becoming a Knesset member in parallel with his cabinet post, a move that rendered Mofaz entirely beholden to the prime minister.
Mofaz has become a principal spokesman for the disengagement, primarily within the defense establishment.
This week, he opened a new front, with an unprecedented verbal barrage at Netanyahu, terming him "an expert on harming the weak."
On Thursday, Likud MK Gila Gamliel said she had recently advised Mofaz to agree to vacate the plum ministry. "He already came wearing the 'halo' of a 'man of security'," Gamliel said. "Now he needs to build himself up politically, so, for example, he could do 'sacred work' by becoming interior minister." Gamliel, a Likud "rebel" who has softened her prior opposition to the disengagement, hinted that Peres might be offered the defense post.
Olmert's close backing for the proposed Gaza withdrawal, for which he acted unflinchingly as stalking horse and trial balloonist, could make him a wild card in a cabinet reshuffle. He has pledged to do whatever is needed to smooth the path to a unity government.
If Sharon can negotiate the Wednesday conference reasonably unscathed, how might a unity government look?
One month ago, an association between the three centrist-dominated parties seemed nearly an even-money bet. Almost immediately, however, built-in stressors tore at the seams of the budding alliance.
Leftists within Labor argued that Netanyahu's policies constituted a socially dangerous form of Thatcherism, and that Labor must wring concessions to moderate the effects of budget cuts in health, welfare and education.
Shinui, for its part, backs the budget as part of its economic policy, which calls for distancing Israel from its Labor-planted welfare-state roots.
Rightists within the Likud, with the Peres-phobic Shalom at their helm, rejected the concept of a secular coalition with no party to the right of Likud. Citing ethnic balance as an additional consideration, they demanded that the coalition be expanded to include the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas as well as the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism parties, as follows:
This would represent a most unlikely coalition proposal, one that would be rich in parliamentary votes but volatile in the extreme, as Shinui has in the past ruled out joining any government which includes Shas, its vocal arch-foe, and has strongly hinted at rejection of any tie with Haredim (the ultra-Orthodox).
Recently, however, Shinui cabinet minister Avraham Poraz has cautiously lobbied for an alliance that would involve UTJ, setting two conditions: that legislation be modified to increase the draft of ultra-Orthodox men, and that regulations be changed governing religious bans that have kept couples from legally marrying.
Now considered by some the most likely prospect. "In my view, there's no way around it, Shinui and the Labor Party will not be sitting together in the government, no way," Gamliel told Israel Radio.
"In the end, the Labor Party will come into the government instead of Shinui, and with it, United Torah Judaism and Shas, because this is the only coalition that will grant the prime minister a stable government until the end of his term."