Between Bush and Netanyahu

If Netanyahu torpedoes Sharon's plan, he could bring down the prime minister, but at the cost of alienating voters in the center and angering the Americans. If he supports it, he risks losing his political identity, his supporters in the Likud and extending Sharon's term in office.

The discussion of the prime minister's disengagement plan goes into a critical stage today, with the return of the American administration's envoys to Israel. This time they aren't coming to hear general statements about ideas and their alternatives, but to understand directly from Ariel Sharon what he wants and how many settlements he plans to evacuate in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Then the discussions will begin about what Israel will get from the U.S., and a formula that grants implied recognition of the annexation of settlement blocs in the future.

The revelations about the preparations for the war in Iraq and the launch and reentry of the Columbia space shuttle proved that the Americans, who are disciples of order and organization, are also not totally immune from improvisation and its consequences. But Sharon's shooting from the hip deters them and they want to prepare well before they grant their blessings to his plan. The administration learned its lesson from the separation fence affair, when they dropped their close monitoring of Sharon and ended up in a political imbroglio.

It's not clear why Sharon revealed his plan to reporters instead of reaching an early understanding with Washington. If he had told the Americans in the fall about his plan to evacuate Netzarim, he could have asked for something in return and even appeared to have conceded to an American request. Instead, he announced the evacuation of all of Gaza without getting anything and has become exposed to pressure to deepen the evacuation in the West Bank.

Now the fate of the plan rests in the hands of two people - George W. Bush and Benjamin Netanyahu. The president will determine what Israel gets for an evacuation. The finance minister is the key to the support of most of the Likud ministers for the plan. There's a vicious circle involved in this. Netanyahu is demanding Sharon bring an impressive "compensation package" from the Americans. For that the Americans need a substantial withdrawal from the West Bank and already have made clear they won't make do with small evacuations from four tiny settlements in north Samaria, nor will they forgo the evacuation of the outposts. But a deep withdrawal from the West Bank will make it difficult for Netanyahu, Limor Livnat and Danny Naveh to support the plan, for ideological reasons and for another reason raised by Livnat: Israel will be losing territorial bargaining cards.

Senior Likud officials speak of "Netanyahu's dilemma." If he torpedoes the plan, he could bring down Sharon, but at the cost of alienating voters in the center, angering the Americans and becoming overly dependent on the National Religious Party and Avigdor Lieberman. If he supports it, he risks losing his political identity, losing his supporters in the Likud and extending Sharon's term in office. All of that will strengthen his rival Shaul Mofaz. And if he abstains, as he did on the road map, he will look spineless.

Sharon and his aides are showing optimism. They believe Netanyahu will support the plan, and say all it will take is one of the undecided Likud ministers abstaining to pass the plan through the government. And even if he doesn't support it, the finance minister mostly worries them because of his influence in the Likud faction in the Knesset and the danger he might take up the leadership of the "rebels." Without him, Yehiel Hazan and Gila Gamliel will find it difficult to threaten Sharon.

The timetable is tight. Sharon wants to bring the plan to the government in May after winning agreement from Bush, and persuading the undecided ministers. The current coalition will come to an end at that point. Despite all Gideon Sa'ar's juggling as he collects MKs for Knesset votes, there's a limit to the reliance on the right wing factions, which oppose the prime minister's policy. The Likud is convinced that Shimon Peres and his colleagues in Labor are so hungry for power that they won't be deterred on their way into Sharon's government by the police investigations and Sharon scandals.

The question is how the new coalition will perform. Unity governments in the past were recipes for political paralysis. The breakthroughs, from Sadat's visit and through Madrid, Oslo, the Lebanon withdrawal and the disengagement plan, were all born in narrow governments. It is difficult to tell whether Sharon and Peres will break that tradition or bury both the withdrawal from Gaza and the planned evacuations in the West Bank, instead.