In boxing terms, this past week since Likud MK Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu's resignation from the Finance Ministry was the first round. The gong has sounded and each of the two rivals, Netanyahu and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has gone back into his corner of the ring, huffing and puffing, scrutinizing each other as they face many more rounds of punching and reciprocal pummeling, until the final gong. Both of them drew blood last week. Netanyahu beat Sharon in the surveys among registered Likud voters, but he also suffered losses: In the opinion of the public, his resignation was chalked up as a political maneuver - successful at the moment but devoid of ideology and "conscience." Again, this was the old Bibi who terrified, frightened and sowed alarm concerning a fait accompli, a "done deal" as he likes to say in his impeccable American accent, which has been approved in the Knesset and in the government several times, including with his vote.
The attack campaign against him by Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister and acting Minister of Finance Ehud Olmert, which was aimed as branding him as the serial runaway, got on his nerves: As has often happened to him, he felt pressured, took fright and moved forward his return to Israel from New York, where he went last week, by 24 hours. According to his original plan, he was supposed to have come back this afternoon and now just a drop of criticism landed him back at Ben-Gurion International airport yesterday. How is he going to stand up to the storms of heavy pressures awaiting him further along in his campaign?
Sharon's conduct has also not been free of mistakes. He gave his interview to Channel 1 on Wednesday night, three days after Netanyahu's resignation. Until then, he and his associates kept silent and let Netanyahu dictate the agenda. When Sharon was interviewed by the channel's Ayala Hasson, he was reacting to something that had happened three days earlier and to the surveys of registered Likud voters that had been conducted by Haaretz and Channel 10, which predicted a resounding defeat for him in the future battle for the leadership of the Likud. Had he fought back sooner, perhaps he would have changed something in the results of the surveys. Perhaps.
Sharon did not hasten to react because it is important to him to come across as unruffled, but last weekend it looked as though the bulldozer's famous sangfroid was a bit shaken. "They are trying to depose me. I need your help," he said over the phone to supporters who were hosting acting finance minister Olmert at the home of central committee member Eitan Ashuri in Moshav Tzrufa south of Hof Hacarmel. This statement, which was quoted by Rina Matzliah on Channel 2 on Saturday night, is not characteristic of Sharon. It testifies to stress. To a victimized, insulted mood. It is more reminiscent of Vice Premier Shimon Peres in his difficult hours vis-a-vis former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. This, said one senior Likud person, is "sniveling and whining" and Sharon scorns people who snivel and whine.
In consultations of Sharon's "ranch forum" on the weekend, it was decided not to give up but to approach the Likud forcefully and using all means. Yes, these days Sharon, too, is fighting for his home. Not because he is in love with the Likud, but because he knows that all the other options supposedly at his disposal are worse. Sharon's people are pinning their hopes on Olmert. A finance minister, on the eve of elections and on the eve of primaries, can work wonders among the people. Bibi's people are hastening to dispel this euphoria.
"It won't be easy for Olmert to pour on money. He is tied up, trapped," they say. "There is a budget, there is an economic policy. If he deviates from it, the economy will collapse, the investors will be scared off - and then everyone will be longing for Netanyahu. If he doesn't deviate, he will have no possibility of developing an independent agenda."
Sharon will try to change the situation in the Likud, say his people, but if he reaches the conclusion, on the eve of the primaries, that the game is up, he will not walk open-eyed into oblivion. He will look for other, alternative ways. He is not dreaming of ending his political career with a loss to that "dog."
If we are already comparing Sharon to Peres, another point of similarity can be found: the support given by an American president, on the eve of elections, to one candidate rather than his rival. In 1996, president Bill Clinton supported prime minister Peres, over Netanyahu; in 2001, Clinton supported prime minister Barak, over Sharon. Peres and Barak lost, and today President George W. Bush is supporting Sharon.
The relaxed interview Bush gave last Thursday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas to Channel 1's Washington correspondent Yaron Dekel was an intentional and carefully timed American attempt to tip the scales in Sharon's favor. It is easy to imagine the "Arik" Sharon of yore making a scathing remark about such an attempt. In the interview, Dekel asked all the questions but Bush stuck close to the script he had brought with him from home.
After the cameras stopped rolling, the two - Bush and Dekel - conversed for half an hour more. Dekel, a political commentator emeritus, brought the president up to date on Sharon's political situation and on the public opinion polls that were conducted last week among the registered Likud voters. Bush, himself a survivor of public opinion polls, attributed little importance to this information. Surveys, he said, reflect only the mood on the evening when they are conducted. Nevertheless, said Dekel to Bush, it is possible that in the near future, you will have to work with a different prime minister. Bush was quick on the draw with an answer: I, he said, prefer stability.
"Why are they writing that I'm an extremist?" wondered Likud MK Uzi Landau. "I supported the peace agreement with Jordan whereas the prime minister didn't. And I am saying that, should there be an occasion for a true peace, I am prepared for concession and compromises - so what do they want from me?"
Landau has come to terms with the failure of the fight against the disengagement. Today he is concentrating on the fight against the person who formulated the disengagement. He is promising to run until the very end, even against Netanyahu, because, as far as he is concerned, Netanyahu is not worthy of leading the country and the Likud. Of course he has to say this, because if he gives the slightest hint that he is hesitating, that he is prepared to withdraw his candidacy when the day comes, he is liable to lose supporters.
In private discussions in recent days, Landau has been expressing harsh criticism of the campaign to oppose the disengagement. He is talking about "strategic" mistakes that the orange leadership made - mistakes that have played into Sharon's hands. One mistake, in his opinion, was when the heads of the Yesha Council (of settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza), contrary to a prior agreement they had with him, insisted on placing themselves at the head of public struggle against the evacuation. There are people in this country who don't like "settlers" and "the religious," said Landau to his associates, including those who don't like the disengagement, and from the moment "the religious" stood at the head of the struggle, they did not stand a chance of enlisting the support of the general public. We should have put other people at the head of the struggle, Landau explained - people from Sheinkin (a trendy street in Tel Aviv), from around Tel Aviv, Likud members from all around the country. Only in this way could we have won people's hearts.
The way that the Yesha wheeler-dealers took command of the struggle helped Sharon and his advisers depict the situation as a struggle between "the people of Israel" and a marginal minority group, a few dozen settlers and nothing more. The real debate, believes Landau, should have been conducted among the inhabitants of Israel, over questions of personal security - over, for example, the range of the Qassams that are liable to fall here after the withdrawal. But this did not happen and now it is all over.
Two-and-a-half months have gone by since he returned, with a heavy heart and a feeling of bitterness, to the alfalfa fields. And three weeks from now former chief of staff Moshe ("Boogie") Ya'alon is slated to make his way back into the limelight at an event that is ostensibly cultural and literary, though there could be quite a bit of politics there - right-wing politics, in fact.
On September 4, the day on which - if all goes according to the Israel Defense Forces' plan - the process of the withdrawal for the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank is scheduled to end, the farmer from Grofit is scheduled to take to the stage at the Shalem Center, a research institute of a right-wing ideological nature, and to answer questions from the audience at an event marking the publication of the Hebrew translation of former minister Natan Sharansky's book "A Case for Democracy." The English edition of the book enjoyed good PR from one reader named George W. Bush. The Hebrew translation, which is being published by Shalem, might well serve as a launching pad for Sharansky's race for a place on the Likud list for the next Knesset, on the assumption that the members of the central committee will indeed read this treatise. "Our Anatoly," as Sharon used to call him, resigned from the government because of his opposition to the disengagement. He had hoped to be chosen chairman of the Jewish Agency, but was blocked by Sharon.
It is hard to say whether Ya'alon's appearance at this particular event, with this book and at the side of this writer, indicates political intentions vis-a-vis the coming elections. On the eve of his retirement he served as a prophet of wrath with respect to what is liable to happen here after the disengagement: He warned of a wave of terror, Qassams and other tribulations. There is no more perfect timing as far as he is concerned than to appear before the public on the day after. Not in the metaphorical sense - but literally on the day after.
Meretz-Yahad chairman Yossi Beilin, according to a report last week by Amit Segal of Army Radio, has met recently with his colleagues' opposition party heads - Avigdor Lieberman and MK Yosef (Tommy) Lapid - to examine the possibility of moving up the date of the elections during the course of the Knesset summer recess. An opposition aspires to moving up elections. Always and in any circumstance. After the disengagement becomes history there is certainly no need for the safety net the left gave to Sharon during the past eyar. But Beilin ought to know what the Meretz voters are thinking about moving up the elections: In the Haaretz-Dialogue survey that was conducted last week among the general public under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs, the question was posed: After the completion of the disengagement, which of the following possibilities do you prefer - elections as soon as possible; an immediate renewal of the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority; or, immediate attention by the current government to the social problems?
Only 9 percent of the Meretz voters preferred the first possibility. About 50 percent of them wanted to allow the current - the current! - government to deal with the social problems of the country's citizens and 41 percent of them want the current - the current! - government to renew the negotiations with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
In Shinui the situation is not very different. Only 6 percent of the voters for the main opposition party, the leader of which is the head of the opposition, Tommy Lapid, want elections. Immediate attention to the problems of society is preferred by 64 percent of them and only 26.5 percent are in favor of immediate renewal of the peace negotiations. Apparently Lapid knows what he is basing himself on when he says that he would not object to returning to the government immediately after the disengagement, but only if the Labor Party resigns from it over the budget.
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