Reports of His Demise Are Premature

When Sharon looks back, he sees that four of the greatest hawks and militarists the defense establishment has ever known - Dayan, Peres, Weizman and Rabin - all members of his generation, have all gone down in history as peacemakers.

After all the hullabaloo and spin this weekend, after they made chopped liver out of him and pronounced him dead, Sharon suddenly came to and said: "Cut!" In the counter-spin department, Sharon has yet to meet his match. He's a pro at flooding the media with interviews. "When I realized it was all blackmail, I banged on the table and told them no one was going to throw a wrench into the political works for his own personal gain," Sharon told Yedioth Ahronoth. "The country comes before the party," he told Maariv.

"The Big Bang is on its way. It's not going to be the same government anymore," said someone in the know, hinting at the possibility of ministers being fired and the political deck being reshuffled. "Sharon has no other plan except the one he proposed on February 2, and he will get the majority he needs," said another Sharon associate.

Whether or not he is capable of that remains to be seen. If Sharon's determination shows the slightest slack, he will be treated like a rag that even the biggest leper in the party can trample on, as one pundit put it.

Most Israelis have a good memory when it comes to election promises. They tend to reward or punish leaders for keeping, or failing to keep, their word. Sharon promised peace and security along with painful concessions. The majority of the public expects him to keep that promise, and will probably give him the marks he deserves when election time rolls around. This is not so for the ungrateful MKs of the Likud, who sit in the Knesset basking in the pleasures of power thanks to Sharon's landslide victory, but have no qualms about hobbling him.

The moment Sharon declared that Israel has no business being in Gaza and the time has come to separate, the government lost its moral mandate to send soldiers to serve and die in Gaza. If Sharon wants to remain in power, it is clear that he must continue what he started. The massive support he received in the Knesset on Sunday from the defense establishment, which has gone back once and for all on its insistence that quitting Gaza will increase terror, is a powerful tail wind for his initiative.

But the rocky days aren't over yet. Either the bloodletting in the Gaza Strip will resume, or we'll find ourselves in a head-on confrontation with the U.S. administration, or both. U.S. billionaire Mort Zuckerman, former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, warned Sharon last week that if his plan doesn't go through after Bush endorsed it, the consequences for Bush-Israel relations will be very grave.

Zuckerman, a friend of Benjamin Netanyahu, didn't have to mention that without America's $10 billion guarantee, Netanyahu wouldn't be a successful finance minister today. So tell me, is he the one who should be leading Israel in this dangerous game of footsie with America? Netanyahu's role in the bid to sabotage Sharon's initiative is not only a show of ingratitude to Bush, but unhelpful in promoting his own political interests. As Sharon's natural heir, in the event that Israel goes to the polls, wouldn't it be better for the dirty work of evacuation to be done by Sharon, so that he gets a country free of the affliction of Gaza?

Sharon was not being his alert self when he fell into the cunning ambush set for him by Netanyahu and his buddies in the matter of the party referendum. But it's not some deal about coffee from Brazil or tea from China that is at stake here. We're talking about historical processes that most of the people in this country sincerely believe in.

Getting a grip on the reins again, Sharon must stick to his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip entirely by the end of 2005. If he plays it right, there are lots of options open to him - from sacking ministers and restructuring the coalition in such a way that he wins a majority in the government, to setting the stage for early elections and winning a majority in the Knesset. The last thing Netanyahu wants is to find himself facing Mofaz in the primaries. And it's even harder to imagine that half the Likud MKs will want to find themselves out on the doorstep.

I still believe that in his mind, Sharon has crossed the Rubicon. When he looks back, he sees that four of the greatest hawks and militarists the Israeli defense establishment has ever known - Dayan, Peres, Weizman and Rabin - all members of his generation, have gone down in history as peacemakers. There is no question he would prefer to end up like them than be remembered as the bungler of Sabra and Chatila.

The reports of Sharon's political demise that made the rounds over the weekend are premature. From his standpoint, the greatest battle of his life still lies ahead.