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1. The political horizon

When the clock struck midnight on Wednesday and Ariel Sharon did not withdraw the letters of dismissal he'd issued to the Shas ministers, he brought home the lesson he wished to impart to the rebellious faction and justly earned himself great public acclaim. He demonstrated leadership, he aligned himself with the feelings of the mainstream Israeli public that is fed up with the extortion practiced by the ultra-Orthodox parties and reinforced the self-image he'd created two weeks earlier at the Likud Central Committee meeting as someone who unhesitatingly puts national considerations before his own political benefit.

But as soon as the cheers die down, Sharon will be faced with a question: What now? How can he maintain his grip on the premiership, which he wanted so badly and is enjoying so much? As of this writing yesterday morning, it was uncertain whether Sharon had a clear answer to this quandary.

On Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after the Knesset passed by a large majority the economic plan that it had rejected two days earlier, Sharon discussed a number of ways of dodging the resultant political crisis: He inquired whether immediate elections could be held for prime minister alone, despite the reinstatement of the old, one-slip election method, and was told that while this was possible, the newly elected prime minister would only serve until November 2003, when the current Knesset is due to conclude its term. When he heard the answer, Sharon took the idea off the agenda. He would only be interested if he could be elected for a four-year term.

Another possibility Sharon looked into was expanding the remaining coalition. This avenue was explored by his aides and by the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office. Avigdor Yitzhaki checked with Yossi Paritzky about how Shinui would feel about joining the coalition and was told that the party was open to suggestions, but that it would insist that certain changes be introduced in the government's official platform.

There was also talk in Sharon's circle about the possibility of disbanding the Knesset. Some recommended that he move to immediately disband the Knesset and have new elections set to take place within two months (at an estimated cost of NIS 400 million), banking on the assumption that Sharon would reap the fruits of the wide public support he currently enjoys. Others counseled him to wait until he has a political achievement (such as a stable cease-fire agreement and an outline for negotiations) that he can take to the voters. Another variation on this possibility was also proposed: To call for elections on the basis of an agreement with the Palestinians, with Sharon heading a newly created political entity instead of the Likud.

There was also some movement in the field that appears to be an indicator of the political horizon the prime minister will be aiming for in the coming days: He gave Communications Minister Ruby Rivlin the green light to reassure United Torah Judaism that its representatives would not be dismissed from their positions in the government and the Knesset (the explanation: They did not take part in the cabinet vote on the economic plan because they are not coalition members, and so the insubordination they demonstrated in the Knesset vote is not that galling).

For the time being, Sharon has decided not to appoint new ministers to the posts filled by Shas ministers and not to replace the ministry director-generals. He also is not demanding that Shas leader Eli Yishai submit a letter of resignation as a condition for returning Shas to the coalition. The impression conveyed yesterday was that Sharon is willing to reconcile with Shas, but only after the letters of dismissal go into effect.

2. A model statesman

Sharon made the decision to fire the Shas ministers in a burst of anger, after the stinging defeat the government suffered in Monday's Knesset vote. Though he had warned Eli Yishai from the outset that this is what would happen should the Shas ministers vote against the economic plan that was approved by the cabinet, Sharon did not foresee the embarrassing results of the vote. The prime minister's assumption was that the plan would pass in the Knesset by a small majority. His reaction to the vote of the Shas ministers was influenced by the tremendous affront he felt over the unexpected defeat. His aggrieved state of mind was evident the following day as well.

On Monday at about 11 P.M., Sharon asked his aides until what time the main newspaper headlines could be changed. When he was told that it was nearly time for the papers to go to press, he ordered that word be given of the issuing of letters of dismissal to the Shas ministers. By doing so, Sharon climbed a tall tree that he could not (and did not want to) climb down, in a move that dictated the heated tone of the entire crisis.

At the same time, he managed to present the situation in a new, more flattering light: The ringing failure on the Knesset vote was turned into an object lesson in proper administrative norms. A similar thing happened after the meeting of the Likud Central Committee, which is remembered more for Sharon's declaration that he would continue to run the affairs of state as he sees fit, and not for his failure to block the vote on adding the new plank to the party platform. In both cases, it was showy gestures and words rather than hard facts that made the biggest impression on the public's consciousness, and that was enough to change the atmosphere in the prime minister's favor and to alter the political reality.

Two weeks ago, Sharon did not have a majority in the Likud Central Committee or among the party's rank-and-file, and thus his assertion that he will continue to pursue his own policy regardless of their position cannot be expected to hold up for long; the same is true of the scorn he showed for Shas this week: Without Shas, he doesn't have a coalition. But in this media-saturated age, virtual moves are enough to cement an image, to bring leaders to soaring new heights of popularity or to knock them down into the abyss, and this very fluctuation influences the reality: Sharon appears to enjoy broad support in the Likud right now and if he were to initiate elections, he would probably beat Benjamin Netanyahu even though he lacks a solid camp within the party.

The mettle he displayed with regard to Shas has burnished his image as a national leader, both on the domestic front and in the international arena, and it will also affect Shas's behavior from now on, should the party return to the coalition. In both instances, Sharon sought to parlay a tactical victory (which was originally a defeat and only transformed into an achievement by his handling and portrayal of it) into a strategic move: To the Likud, he presented himself as a model of statesman-like comportment; to the coalition factions, he came across as a forceful prime minister ready to play rough with anyone who doesn't abide by his rules of the game.

Sharon's problem is that he doesn't know when to stop: He treats Arafat like a mouse twitching in a trap and berates Eli Yishai and company like a sergeant riding his incompetent new recruits. It did not suffice him to send dismissal letters to the ministers and their deputies; he appeared to take pleasure in humiliating them. He refused to answer their calls, he instructed his aides to cut off all contact with them and he rejected all offers of compromise. He did the same at the Likud Central Committee. He did not stay for the vote, but contemptuously turned his back on his colleagues and left the hall.

At a meeting of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he disparaged the position taken by the Likud Central Committee and asserted that he was keeping the good of the country in mind. And he did something similar last week at the party marking the tenth anniversary of the Israel Democracy Institute: After Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert greeted him with some encouraging words about what transpired at the Likud Central Committee meeting, Sharon surveyed the attendees and said sarcastically: "All I'm missing here is that audience."

In consultations on Monday, Sharon seemed genuinely outraged when he expressed his dismay over the behavior of the Shas ministers (he upbraided Cabinet Secretary Gideon Sa'ar, demanding to know why the dismissal letters had not yet been brought to him for his signature). And it was the same at the cabinet meeting on Sunday: During a discussion about granting social rights to kibbutz members, Sharon's scathing criticism of the Shas ministers for their opposition went something like this: "Why are you always jumping on everything? Why are you opposed? The kibbutzniks are the salt of the earth. The military cemeteries are filled with them. Look what the farmers did for the country's development." Some ministers believe Sharon's words reflect his long-held opinion of the Haredi sector as parasitic, draft-dodging and non-Zionist.

However, the next morning, Sharon found himself without a majority in the Knesset. It was conceivable that he would have to don a skullcap once more and go knocking on the doors of the leading Ashkenazi and Sephardi clerics. Ruby Rivlin reminded him this week: At the Mitla Pass, the Egyptians fought until the last man because they didn't have a choice. Shas has sipped from your cup of poison. It could decide to fight you. Make sure the rope will hold before you tug it any further.

3. The American outline

When Sharon formed his broad coalition, he sought to safeguard himself in the event of the Labor Party's resignation; in other words, he wanted to have more than 60 MKs left if Labor chose at some point to switch to the opposition. Yesterday, he found himself completely dependent on Labor leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and his comrades. After the vote that approved the economic plan, Sharon and Ben-Eliezer met in the Knesset and discussed the new situation. Ben-Eliezer left the meeting feeling that he now had to proceed carefully so as not to appear to be exploiting the prime minister's predicament for illegitimate political gain. By the same token, the defense minister expected that Sharon would not initiate moves in the political or security spheres that Labor could not accept. The two men also spoke about the possibility of reaching agreement on moving up the elections.

So far, Labor has not used its bargaining power to nudge Sharon toward a more conciliatory political position. The American administration is currently putting the finishing touches on a plan that will propose that Israel and the Palestinians simultaneously proceed on four separate channels: security, political, economic and administrative. In security matters,

the United States will seek to get the parties to cooperate in a way that will prevent terror and Israeli reprisal actions.

The preparations for a regional conference will be portrayed as progress in the political channel. The economic channel will include a heavy infusion of funds to the Palestinian Authority, under close international supervision. In the administrative realm, the PA will implement governmental and organizational reforms, with one objective being to neutralize Arafat's influence without detracting from his official standing.

The regional conference will last one or two days and its main purpose will be to jumpstart a tidily arranged political process to be based on various working groups. It will be agreed upon from the outset that the goal of the political process is the achievement of a permanent accord between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Obstacles to the implementation of this outline are likely to include Israel's refusal to officially recognize the establishment of a Palestinian state and Sharon's propensity to drag out the political process for years versus the demands of the Palestinians and of the Arab countries with whom the U.S. is consulting, for a clear and firm timetable.

Other hurdles remain to be tackled: Israel will have consent to Arafat's participation in the political process and forgo its closure and encirclement methods in order to show that it is not seeking a cantonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that it agrees to the idea of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state. Of course, the terror attacks, like the one Wednesday night in Rishon Letzion, threaten to foil the entire process: As long as such murderous acts continue, Israel cannot be asked to waive its means of self-defense, even if they make the territories look like towns controlled by local sheriffs.

Some officials and diplomats say that the U.S. needs encouragement from Israel if it is to translate its plan into a serious political initiative. Since, in their view, Israel needs such a process to have any hope of extricating itself from the crisis it has been in since September 2000, they cannot understand why Labor is not flexing its muscle in order to bring this about. They point to Ben-Eliezer's recent public statements that in the absence of a political process, terror will resume in full force (the suicide bombing two days ago is yet another painful reminder of the accuracy of this diagnosis) and that the economic crisis is indisputably a consequence of the political and security situations. Why, then, is Labor not using its leverage to push for such a turning point?

Even if this talk has yet to reach Sharon's ears, it only heightens the likelihood that he will search for a way to bring Shas back into the coalition, once the intoxication of the latest polls wears off.

4. Shas's lesson

The Shas leadership feels that Sharon did them a terrible wrong. After the dust settled, Eli Yishai told his close associates that if he'd known that the government was headed for defeat in Monday's Knesset vote, he would have done what he could to save it from the debacle. According to this version of events, he instructed the entire faction, including the ministers, to vote against the economic plan because he was relying on Finance Minister Silvan Shalom's assessment that the prime minister still had a majority in the Knesset plenum even without Shas. Knowledgeable sources claim that Yishai and Shalom had even agreed on some modifications of the economic plan that would enable Shas to support it, but then the UTJ rabbis (particularly Rabbi Magur and Rabbi Elyashiv) opposed this and convinced Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that the plan would be too detrimental to religious interests. Rabbi Yosef then instructed the Shas MKs to vote against.

In Shas, they admit that the brinkmanship methods that always served them so well in the past backfired this time: Yishai did not believe that Sharon would make good on his threat to dismiss the ministers.

Two days ago, in discussions with Rabbi Yosef before the Knesset vote, the party decided to offer Sharon a chance to defuse the crisis, while standing by their refusal to accept what they considered to be humiliating demands. Sharon did not jump at the opportunity. Afterwards, Shas politicians said that Sharon's behavior showed disdain for both the Haredi sector and the Sephardi population. This looks to be the thrust of the public campaign that Shas will wage against Sharon if its ruffled feathers are not smoothed anytime soon. However, the general feeling in Shas was that a way will be found to renew the partnership, by the time the economic plan passes its second and third readings in the Knesset at the latest.