Analysis / Cluelessness and Comic Relief

Asked what Ariel Sharon will do if he loses today's Knesset vote on the appointment of three ministers, his associates replied vaguely: "The prime minister will know what to do." The copyright on this statement belongs to former prime minister Ehud Barak, who uttered it frequently during the numerous crises of his short reign. It generally meant that he did not have a clue as to what he intended to do - and usually ended up doing nothing.

Sharon has probably also not yet decided what he will do. All the known options - splitting the Likud, setting up his own party, advancing the elections - are being reviewed once again. And, of course, he could choose the Barak option: doing nothing and hoping that the storm will blow over.

Many Israeli governments have not served out their full terms, and some fell over trivial issues. But the current crisis, over the appointment of Ze'ev Boim and Roni Bar-On as ministers, is undoubtedly the most trivial of them all. Indeed, it is so ridiculous that everyone knows it is not the real reason. The real reason is the ongoing implosion of the Likud, which insists on proving, time and time again, that it is incapable of running the country. The Likud "rebels," motivated by a childish desire for revenge, on one hand declare that they have no interest in appointments, but on the other demand Uzi Landau's reinstatement in the cabinet.

However, these are not the original "rebels," but their remnants, joined by Benjamin Netanyahu. He, the former finance minister, plans to vote against the appointment of a new finance minister. He, the former prime minister, plans to vote against a premier's right to appoint ministers. It is hard to see what Netanyahu gains politically from this vote, other than seeing his rival humiliated. And should Sharon declare the vote a confidence vote, Netanyahu will face a tough dilemma: Does he vote no-confidence in a Likud government over a nonideological issue, cave in, abstain or skip the vote?

The comic relief, as usual, is being supplied by Labor. In a last-ditch attempt to snatch a bone from Sharon's plate - perhaps the Israel Broadcasting Authority or the Israel Lands Administration - it is trying to stage its own political crisis. The party that joined the government "for the sake of the disengagement" is now fighting over the spoils.

If Sharon wants to leave the Likud, a loss today could provide him with an excuse. But this excuse would not be sufficient to persuade his supporters in the party to quit with him. And, if he decides to move up the elections, he will either have to go to the president - and hope that 61 MKs cannot be found in the current Knesset to support Netanyahu instead - or begin talks with other factions on an agreed date for early elections.