Analysis / The Storm Before the Calm

With 44 Qassam rocket attacks between Friday and yesterday, six injured, crying children in Sderot and Hamas threatening revenge, on the eve of the Likud Central Committee vote, the events, as one source close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put it, "do not really help."

Up until Friday night, the feeling in the Likud was that Sharon, in spite of everything, was going to be victorious. Then came the Qassams. A new factor entered the fray, security, as the central committee votes tomorrow for or against throwing Sharon out of the party, for or against splitting the Likud. Benjamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau are hovering in the background, almost insignificant. The official reason, the date of the primaries, is also unimportant. The vote is for or against Sharon.

Until yesterday, Netanyahu and Sharon had been built mainly out of each other's mistakes. The weekend's Qassams were the final spin, and apparently the determining one, in which neither man took part. The pendulum swung back and forth. If the average Likudnik hates the fact that Israel is a sucker for evacuating the Gaza Strip and also getting hit with rockets, he will certainly vote against Sharon. But the average Likudnik also loves a strong leader, an appropriate Zionist response and "dead Arabs," as one senior Likud member put it. If a response comes, will it cause the central committee member who wants to take revenge on Sharon, but is concerned about losing the reins of power and doesn't see the point of putting off the primaries, to vote against putting off the primaries? And maybe the members of the Likud Central Committee have already made up their minds, and remain unimpressed by Qassams and responses?

Gloom enveloped Sharon's people yesterday. Even those who secretly hoped Sharon would lose and embark on a new road, without the millstone called the central committee around his neck, seemed sad. The boss, they know, wants with all his heart to win tomorrow; he has invested dozens of hours in meetings and phone calls to central committee members to make it happen. Now, because of a few Hamasniks, he is facing a defeat. Sharon, whose speech reportedly went through several changes because of the events, will not say tonight, "I am committed to staying in the Likud under any circumstances" (i.e., even if he loses tomorrow). At most, he will make do with a general statement such as "the Likud is my home." He will make clear that if he loses, he leaves.

Netanyahu will repeatedly state tonight, in his own words, "I told you so." Yesterday on Channel 2's "Meet the Press," he looked relaxed, wearing a national shade of blue, seemingly tying his hands together under the table, fighting the instinct to raise them in a rousing victory cheer.

The meeting today will no doubt be interesting, stormy and colorful. But it will be the storm before the calm. The calm will prevail at the ballot box at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, when committee members will cast their votes and then go home.