Analysis / Sharon and the Rebels: Who'll Blink First?

At the end of a meal at the prime minister's residence Sunday night, MK Michael Eitan went to Ariel Sharon's table and said: "You know you're going to lose in the vote tomorrow. Why are you so eager to lose? Delay the vote by a week, let me and Gideon [Sa'ar, the coalition whip] try to find a solution." Sharon, who had just told the faction he would bring the ministerial appointments of Ehud Olmert, Roni Bar-On and Ze'ev Boim to a Knesset vote the next day, turned up his nose. "Every day they'll come to me with something else," he said. But Eitan didn't give up, and Sharon promised to sleep on it.

Yesterday Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon contacted the three would-be appointees, who are waiting to get the nod for the treasury, industry and trade, and immigrant absorption portfolios, respectively, and informed them of the delay. He also called MK Abraham Hirchson, who is set to run the Israel Land Administration. The four were supposed to recruit a majority in the Knesset plenum for their appointments, but the majority was not ready to grant their wishes and Sharon's defeat seemed assured.

Another factor was the timing: Olmert's appointment as acting finance minister ends next Wednesday. Due to a lacuna in the law that was revealed yesterday, it is possible that if Olmert is not appointed, the country will be left in the unprecedented position of not having a finance minister on the eve of the budget vote. This situation is likely to lead to new elections.

The Likud anti-disengagement "rebels," who have suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Sharon this year, were not planning to grant him an easy victory more than a week before time runs out. The Prime Minister's Office didn't hesitate much: if Sharon was fated to lose this vote, it would be better for him to lose only once, when it counts, than twice - yesterday and next week. And if he is fated to be hit with an unfriendly headline, it is better for it to say, "Sharon gave in" in medium type than giant letters shouting out to the heavens, "Sharon defeated."

This was a smart tactical withdrawal on Sharon's part. It proves that he's not looking for new elections and that sometimes he does blink. Wars of nerves are Sharon's forte, although he preferred to wait for the decisive, final battle that will be held in the Knesset next week.

If it is true that the government will topple if Olmert is not approved as finance minister, one of two things will have to happen: Either the rebels will give in, allowing Sharon to get his three appointments confirmed, or Sharon will retract his promise and bring only the Olmert appointment to a vote. For that, he has a majority, and it is this unexpected and dramatic turnabout that could bring Sharon victory. If this happens, it will be following a pattern set over the past few months: As long as there is an escape hatch, that's how long the majority that has prevented the government from falling manages to hold out.

If Sharon insists on bringing all his appointments for a vote in the Knesset next week, the seven or eight rebels will be compelled to decide between their desire to humiliate Sharon and the shortening of their days as Knesset members. It's not a simple decision, since about half of them are not expected to be voted into the next Knesset and none, besides Uzi Landau, wants new elections immediately.