The struggle between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu is approaching its climax. On Sunday night, in prime time, they will face off on the familiar stage in the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, each burning with hostility, eager to trample and humiliate the other. For more than a decade they have been meeting this way in the political boxing ring to exchange blows. This time it seems their desire to arm wrestle to the finish over the technical question of when to hold the Likud leadership primaries is blinding them and preventing them from operating according to their own interests.
The move to advance the primaries in the Likud began when Netanyahu was still in the government, an initiative that came from the settlers and some Likud rebels. After he resigned, Netanyahu climbed onto the bandwagon and claimed the initiative as his own. Meanwhile, things have happened: He lost momentum, he dropped in the polls, and he made some mistakes that brought the old Bibi back to mind.
Then there was the disengagement, far more successful than expected, not a drop of blood spilled, nobody shot their brother. Qassams didn't fall on Ashkelon and buses didn't start blowing up again. Sharon is more popular than ever. The people are grateful for the evacuation of Gaza, and he came back this week covered in glory from the UN.
True, Sharon meanwhile has also slipped. The unceasing leaks from around him that say he has already made up his mind to quit the Likud, and the night-time meeting with the wealthy donors at Ms. Rosenwald's home in New York were the mistakes of amateurs.
Still, simple logic says that the person who should be seeking early elections is Sharon, now at his peak. Logic also says that Netanyahu should be trying to do everything he can to prevent early elections, since he is descending in the polls right now. Under normal circumstances, in a normal country, a popular and successful prime minister whose party wants to mutiny takes the initiative and goes to elections to save his successes, because who knows what will happen in another few months. Terror could come back. Gaza could fall into Hamas' hands. Sharon's coalition could come apart. The debate over the budget for 2006 could get out of control because elections are on the horizon, whether early or not.
Nearly everything that could happen in the foreseeable future in every area is not good for Sharon - who in any case has used up his agenda since the end of disengagement - and is good for Netanyahu. If Netanyahu wasn't Netanyahu, he would have waited for Sharon's popularity to erode. A few years ago he wanted an easy victory over Sharon in the Likud Central Committee, on the issue of the Palestinian state. The victory indeed came easily: Sharon was practically booed off the stage by the Likud screamers, but the next day it was clear that he was the real victor. Today too, Sharon is dying to beat Netanyahu, and Netanyahu is dying to beat Sharon in the Monday vote. For both of them, the main thing is to win, even if the immediate victory does not necessarily serve their interests.
Sharon is now inside Shimon Peres' shoes after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated: In November 1995 Labor was at the height of its popularity, and Peres could have advanced the elections to January and been re-elected. Instead, he chose to wait until May. In February-March the buses blew up and the enormous 20 percent advantage he had over Netanyahu was quickly erased.
Exploiting success is an important element in every war, and Sharon knows something about wars and about political campaigns. In October 2002, after the Labor Party broke up the government, he could have formed a coalition with the radical right. He chose not to get on the course of erosion, went to the president, won big, and doubled the Likud's strength in the Knesset. Today, even though he has a lot of credit from the public, Sharon is in no hurry to decide. Apparently, the Sharon of October 2002 is not the same as the one of September 2005.
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