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On Wednesday afternoon, just hours before the opening of the Likud convention, there was utter panic in the Tel Aviv office of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. The grassroots activists reported on the collapse of the opponents' camp. They talked of threats voiced by supporters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against cabinet ministers and mayors who were to participate in the convention. They mentioned secret anti-Silvan collaboration between Sharon and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shalom's people were considering the possibility of issuing a statement to the effect that they support Sharon's proposal to authorize him to hold coalition talks with "Zionist parties."

This was the gimmick: There would be an open vote on Sharon's proposal and a secret vote on the proposal of Minister Uzi Landau, which called for the Labor Party to be ruled out as a coalition partner. Sharon would win the open vote, Landau the secret ballot. Each side would get what it wanted, but the rebels would be able to claim that their specific proposal had greater legal and moral validity than the general proposal of the prime minister. The idea was examined and then abandoned. The fear was that it would be too confusing for the delegates - that after the open vote they would disperse and go home.

During these tense hours, when the foreign minister's people felt that the rug was being pulled out from under them, something else happened, too. One of the activists called to relate that he had just heard from Shlomi Oz, the man with the record, the buddy of Omri and his dad Ariel, that the cabinet secretary, Israel Maiman, was on his way to a meeting with Silvan. That can't be, Shalom's advisers said. True, he's one of the senior people on Sharon's staff, but what did Shalom have to do with the timetable of the cabinet secretary? Almost immediately after the activist gave his report, the other phone rang. On the line was the cabinet secretary, announcing his imminent arrival.

Within minutes, this development was reported on the radio, thanks to the generosity of Sharon's group. The telephones in Shalom's bureau began to jangle. The activists wanted to know what was going on, whether Shalom was giving in. No such thing, the foreign minister's staff replied: We're going all the way.

But not exactly. On the evening before the convention, the leaders of the opposition to Sharon met in Shalom's office in Tel Aviv. Shalom briefed them on the speech he had prepared. But the speech stayed in the drawer. Shalom was afraid to cross the point of no return with Sharon. He was afraid that Sharon's people - the "swordsmen," as the prime minister calls them - wouldn't let him open his mouth. He was afraid that the media would portray him as having waged a petty personal battle to keep the foreign affairs portfolio. And really, that's not his thing at all.

Counterproposal

The idea of placing on the agenda a counterproposal to the motion of Uzi Landau was engendered on Sunday, at a meeting between MK Omri Sharon and Uri Shani, the convention co-president. The speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, suggested a formula that would arouse the least controversy: "Negotiations with Zionist parties in accordance with the government's Basic Guidelines." Sharon's people liked it. They believed that this wording had a genuine chance of passing (and they weren't far wrong - only five votes separated victory from defeat on this motion).

"It's all because of the wedding of Yaakov Edri's daughter," confidants of the prime minister said sadly. MK Edri (Likud), the deputy minister of public security, married off his daughter on Wednesday evening, and Edri, a Sharon supporter, has five or six Central Committee members who identify with him. They were at the wedding. That would have made all the difference.

On the morning of the convention, Sharon's advisers convened at Sycamore Ranch, the prime minister's desert home. Omri and Eyal Arad, a political strategist, reported that the Sharon camp was definitely coming to life. There's room for cautious optimism about our motion, Omri said. Then they all went their separate ways. Only attorney Yoram Rabad, chair of the Likud's coalition negotiating team, stayed on at the ranch to report to Sharon on his plans for next week. Then he left, too, and Sharon began to write his speech.

Until the last minute, Sharon's people hoped to win in the vote on their motion. Alternatively, they hoped that if the worst happened, the media would blast the extremist, eccentric Likud Central Committee and leave the prime minister alone. Yesterday morning that scenario proved to be off the mark. All the papers focused on Sharon's defeat and on the political shackles that now restrained him. Sharon proved that Shimon Peres is not the only veteran politician who deserves the epithet "loser." The defeat was especially stinging because this time, Sharon had made an effort to win.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it would have been better for the Sharon camp not to place the prime minister's motion on the agenda. Because the result was that Sharon lost twice. A literal reading of the results of the Wednesday vote shows that Sharon can now hold coalition talks only with the Arab parties. Not even with the National Union. What a farce. What a nutty party.

The next stage

Sharon's political plight should not be made light of. He wanted to complete the coalition negotiations with the Labor Party - he doesn't have a new government without Labor - next week and to present it in the Knesset the following week. Now it will be harder for him. His MKs, most of whom supported him in the Wednesday votes, will hesitate to act against the decisions of the convention, knowing that within a few months, they will need to be elected to continue representing the party by that same convention. Sharon's only option is to form a government with Labor, United Torah Judaism and Shas, and go back to the convention for its ratification. The delegates will find it easier to swallow that coalition. But for that to happen, Shas has to commit itself to supporting the disengagement plan. And that hasn't happened yet. Nor is it certain that the Labor Party Central Committee will be in any great hurry to ratify a coalition along those lines.

Even MK Haim Ramon, the most optimistic and enthusiastic member of the Labor Party's negotiating team, sounded on the brink of despair yesterday morning, when he told Army Radio, "Either we will complete the negotiations within two or three days, or we won't complete them at all." Labor MK Dalia Itzik urged Sharon to agree on a date for early elections.

Sharon has already threatened the Likud Knesset faction with early elections. But that's the last thing he wants. No one is promising him a return to the next Knesset with 40 seats. No one is promising him that the next Likud faction in the Knesset will be any more sympathetic from his point of view. The more reasonable likelihood is that his supporters will go down to defeat. If he declares early elections, it will be tantamount to cutting off his nose to spite his face.

Sharon, though, has only himself to blame. On Wednesday he paid the price of complacency, tarrying and letting things slip through his fingers. The old Sharon would have called up Peres on June 7, the day after he fired the two National Union ministers and after minister Effi Eitam, from the National Religious Party, announced his resignation. He could have formed a government then within two weeks. His second opportunity came two weeks ago, after the leaders of Shinui declared their willingness to be part of a government with Shas. Instead of moving quickly and confronting his party with a fait accompli, Sharon opted for the slow track. The coalition negotiations proceeded at a snail's pace; the goal was to get to the summer recess safely. In the meantime, the signatures were collected, the bitterness mounted, the anger burst out. Blood rushed to people's heads. Everyone who had an interest in dumping Sharon exploited the opportunity: Silvan Shalom's loyalists, who want him to retain the Foreign Ministry; the circle of party veterans; the settlers, led by Moshe Feiglin; the Uzi Landau group; and Netanyahu's friends.

So it turned out that Sharon, of all people, who always utilized Likud conventions as advanced weaponry against party leaders and prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu, came out of the convention politically shackled. If there is any small - tiny - consolation for Sharon, it's that Netanyahu, his almost certain successor, will have to confront the same Central Committee when his day comes.

What's with Bibi

Netanyahu gave the sign at the entrance to the convention hall. Interviewed by radio reporters, he said he would not be speaking because he didn't want to "mount a challenge" to the prime minister. Netanyahu also explained his well-known opposition to the co-option of the Labor Party to the government. That was all his supporters needed to get the message.

Sharon was furious. Why, just this Sunday he had gone out of his way to back Netanyahu in the cabinet discussion of the budget, and this is the thanks he gets. But Netanyahu didn't know what Sharon wanted from him. After all, I would have spoken against, Bibi said to an interlocutor, because I'm against having the Labor Party join the government. Sharon should thank me for not speaking. Sharon's inner circle, though, doesn't accept this explanation. They suspect that Netanyahu is seeking to topple Sharon. And they have good grounds for thinking that, too. In the past few months, there have been those who have been urging Netanyahu that now is the time to make his move. If Sharon completes his term of office, these people are whispering to Netanyahu, he will run again and be in office until 2010. Who will remember you them? Who?

With his silence, though, Netanyahu lost the backing of some of the rebels. Tomorrow he'll come to us and ask us to vote for his economic edicts in the Knesset, a Likud MK said this week. Why should we do that? Because support for economic edicts doesn't win us points in the Central Committee, you know.

A key minister in the Likud, who is not known as an automatic supporter of Sharon, said at the beginning of the week that if Sharon wants to get through the Likud convention safely he will have to appoint Netanyahu defense minister, coordinate a joint run in the next elections, and offer Peres the treasury. "Netanyahu will not be able to refuse the defense portfolio, and Peres won't be able to turn down the treasury - after all, the economy is so important to him," the minister said.

A relentless mediator between Sharon and Netanyahu, in an attempt to prevent a rift and an all-out internecine battle, is Knesset Speaker Rivlin. "I want Labor to join the government," Rivlin told Sharon on Wednesday, at the convention presidium table. "That's exactly what we needed to prove to you how wrong you are. The minute they start with their talk about a permanent settlement and the partition of Jerusalem, you will execute a right-face."