The best guess is that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will emerge victorious from Sunday's disengagement referendum among Likud party members. That will be an impressive achievement against the backdrop of Sharon's steep plunge in all the polls, an answer to all the questions in recent months.
If he does push the plan through the Likud, it will be an achievement that follows the personal success he scored on his visit to Washington. The success could be all the more impressive, because he is proposing a plan that no one can say for certain will actually be implemented. That doubt may make it easier for those hesitating to support him. However, it is making things more difficult for those who seek - for the sake of the honor of Sharon's position and the importance of evacuating Gaza - to suspend the mistrust of a person whose credibility has long since become a national issue.
There is something of a paradox here, because those who favor disengagement - the maximum political act that Sharon is ready and capable of advocating under the present conditions - are ostensibly compelled to acquiesce in all the tricks he is using in order to get a majority. They have to comply mutely when he lures the opponents of the plan by means of threats against Yasser Arafat; to cluck with admiration when he complicates Jerusalem-Washington relations and entangles Bush with a leak (or a distortion) from their private conversation; and to say, "Wow, what a man," when he reverses himself all over the place. In short, they have to accept Sharon as he is, with all the wiles and guiles of his ploys.
After having been twice elected prime minister, he is presenting himself for election again: Take me or leave me. The warning from his confidants (though not yet from him) that he will step down if he doesn't get a majority, or will bring about new elections, is putting pressure on both supporters and opponents to decide whether they are ready to take the risk.
The question goes beyond the Likud. Without a ballot and by means of a kind of virtual vote of confidence, a large segment of the public is trying to decide for itself whether it wants to support the disengagement - despite its revulsion of the well-known ways of the prime minister - or whether his negative qualities should be the decisive factor. Many of those who favor disengagement, and the promised evacuation of a few settlements in the West Bank, will not want to see this move canceled because the plan is voted down. It is not an easy decision for them. In this manner Sharon has neutralized quite a bit of the criticism against him from the center and even the left.
The paradox of support is heightened because no astrologer can know for certain what will happen to the disengagement plan in the course of the lengthy period that Sharon has allotted for its implementation. That's nothing short of a mystery inside an enigma. The enigma, of course, involves the moves likely to be made by the prime minister, who is still capable - yet another success - of imbuing such hope after providing decades worth of reasons to doubt him and his promises.
Some of the most experienced Sharonologists, such as Uzi Benziman of Haaretz, factor into the equation of Sharon's scorpion-like character - more than once Sharon has shot himself in the foot with his uncontrollable behavior. If Sharon wins the referendum next Sunday, he will broaden his road, for good and for ill, to the dimensions of a superhighway. Only indictments will be able to block it.
The resolution of the enigma is as complex as the person himself. It has contradictory directions: One is to support the disengagement and the evacuation of settlements and force Sharon, as in a poker game, to show his hand.
The second is to be relentlessly suspicious, to assume that at any time Sharon is capable of fudging his promise, as he did with the American road map.
The third, stemming from the same reason, is to oppose the Labor Party's co-option to the government. Let party leader Shimon Peres and Knesset faction chairperson Dalia Itzik swallow the saliva of a false unity, stay in the opposition, support the plan from there and keep their fingers crossed hoping that the prime minister will deliver the goods. If the right-wing parties leave and erase Sharon's Knesset majority - and, of course, if Sharon becomes a criminal suspect - then let them go to new elections.
Even so, until we hear differently, Sharon stands at the center of a highly problematic political picture as an unchallenged leader full of clout. Even if he fails in the referendum, he will have arrows left in his quiver. In the first week of a new year of independence, that status can still amaze Israelis, only a third of whom now believe in him, according to the polls.
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