Two well-meaning Likud MKs, Michael Eitan and Gideon Sa'ar, have been trying for the past week to bring a measure of unity into the split ranks of the Likud Knesset faction. They claim that their mission is not to assure Knesset approval for the ministerial appointments of Ehud Olmert, Ze'ev Boim and Roni Bar-On, but rather to reach an agreed-upon procedure - binding on Ariel Sharon and his followers, as well as their opponents in the party - that will regulate the functioning of the faction in the remaining months of the current Knesset session.
This, presumably, will assure that the present government will complete its term in office, and that the next elections will take place as scheduled, a year from now. It will also, of course, ensconce Olmert, Boim and Bar-On in their ministerial chairs for that period.
The present political situation, in which the continued existence of the government is threatened by Knesset members from the ranks of the party that is leading the coalition, is unprecedented in the annals of Israel's political history. There may not even be a precedent for this bizarre situation in the history of other democracies. It is nothing less than political chaos, and the direct result of Sharon's political U-turn, the disengagement plan, which turned him into the darling of the political left, while leaving the ranks of his own party split.
This, in itself, was an unprecedented turn of events that was bound to have severe repercussions in his own party.
Last week's statement by Olmert, the prime minister's political ally, that the Oslo Accords had been an important step forward - a declaration that implied that the Likud's political rival, Labor, had been right all along - could only have further enraged traditional Likud supporters, who, together with Sharon and Olmert, had denounced the Oslo Accords, which imposed Arafat and his cohorts from Tunis on the Palestinians, as a tragic mistake.
No wonder the majority of Labor supporters would like to see Sharon continue as prime minister, and that Peres and other Labor ministers in Sharon's cabinet have found a comfortable niche in his government and are reluctant to leave. Sharon, in their eyes, is prepared to adopt their program - an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. And Sharon, unlike them, seems to have the ability to implement this program.
Is this the end of the traditional Israeli political system, which for many years centered on two rival political parties - Likud and Labor?
Speculation is rife that in the next elections, Sharon will lead a newly constituted party, advocating further unilateral withdrawals, and that this party, in coalition with Labor, will form the next government. Alternatively, Sharon will manage to impose his will on the Likud and lead it into the next elections, advocating further unilateral withdrawals, and then, in coalition with Labor, lead the next government.
Both scenarios assume that the opponents of unilateral withdrawal and the uprooting of settlements will cease to be a substantial force in Israeli politics.
What is likely to be the central issue in the next election campaign?
Amir Peretz would like Labor to concentrate on the "swinish, capitalist" economic policies of the Likud government. But the success of the economic policies instituted by Benjamin Netanyahu as finance minister is by now so obviously encouraging economic growth and reducing unemployment that it will probably not be chosen as the central issue by Labor.
How to deal with the Palestinians will, no doubt, again be the issue on which the election campaign will be fought - just as it has been in past years. While Labor will be advocating further withdrawals, what will the Likud's platform be?
This is the question that the Likud will have to resolve in the coming months. What troubles the Likud at this time is not a question of procedure, but rather a question of principle. Will further unilateral withdrawals serve to advance the peace process, and is uprooting additional settlers from their homes an essential part of this process? Likud members and their representatives in the Likud Central Committee will be called upon to provide the answer to this question.
The present Sharon-led coalition may succeed in completing its full term; but when election time comes around, it is going to be new ball game. It is likely that at the next Knesset election voters will again be asked to chose between two opposing views on how to deal with the Palestinian problem - the Likud's vs. Labor's.
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