Going for the Small Bang'

MK Uri Ariel of the National Union stood on the dais of the Knesset on that dramatic day, October 26, 2004, a few hours before the vote on the disengagement plan, and turned with a plea to the man sitting at the cabinet members' table: "Please work with your friends to make sure that there is a national referendum, or vote today against the plan."

"Make no mistake," said Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, interrupting him. "In a national referendum, I will support the plan."

This firm statement by Netanyahu is only one of many collected recently by associates of the prime minister and placed in a special file: the "Netanyahu file." The file, which documents Netanyahu's actions, failures and statements, is not limited to the past year, the year of the disengagement. It goes far back, to the Wye summit, to the emotional speech Netanyahu made in honor of then-chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, expressing his esteem; it recalls that on November 23, 1998, when Netanyahu was prime minister, an international airport named after Yasser Arafat was dedicated in Gaza; it also includes a very critical editorial against Netanyahu in The New York Times of August 9 of this year, two days after he resigned from the government because of the plan for which he would have voted in a national referendum.

This is only a sample of the file of slander and mudslinging that Sharon and his people are preparing for Netanyahu. Associates of the prime minister deny the existence of such a file. There is no file, they say; there are files. Ariel Sharon does not give up so fast. After the disengagement, he will charge after the Likud activists and will remind them who the real "Bibi" Netanyahu is, and what a meager and shrunken Likud, barely 19 seats, he left behind him. Don't you want to be MKs, he will ask them.

The Likudniks are torn between a strong urge to be free of Sharon, and their assessment and fear that Netanyahu is liable to shrink their ranks; between the ideology that has opened an abyss between them and the prime minister, and their basic instincts, which tell them Sharon is a magnet for Knesset seats and Netanyahu is liable to make them disappear. These are the only real fears in the Likud today, and Sharon will try to take advantage of them in the coming weeks.

Sharon has plans in the area of ministerial appointments. If he manages to enlist a majority in the Knesset to approve the appointment of acting finance minister Ehud Olmert as the permanent finance minister, he will offer Minister of Agriculture Yisrael Katz, one of the strong men in the Likud Party Central Committee, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, instead of Olmert. From Sharon's point of view, this is a wise and worthwhile move. But Katz, who at present is preparing bills to prevent any Likud prime minister from passing another disengagement in the Knesset or the cabinet, understands the maneuver, and promises to refuse.

"I don't want to be seen as someone who sold out his principles in exchange for a portfolio, as senior as it may be," says Katz. These days, Sharon is even thinking of MK Haim Katz, who recently registered 1,500 new members for the movement. He is opposed to the disengagement, but is also angry at Netanyahu because of something related to the Israel Aircraft Industries, which he represents in the Knesset. Sharon is very anxious to help Katz solve that problem. That is how Sharon's life is being conducted, between the disengagement, and the surveys and the shady Katz A and Katz B deals.

The Samson option

At the moment, Sharon is considering what has become known as the "small bang" - splitting the Likud and establishing a right-center party headed by himself, which will run against the right-wing Likud headed by Netanyahu. Sharon will take this route only if the surveys show unequivocally that he has no chance of recapturing the leadership of the Likud. The prime minister is familiar with history, and knows that he could end up like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Mordechai - with something like 10 seats. That won't make him prime minister, but it will steal enough votes away from the Likud under Netanyahu to prevent Bibi from inhabiting that office again.

Sharon, says one of his confidants, would rather be succeeded by Labor chair Shimon Peres than by Netanyahu. That is the Samson option, which they are discussing in the prime minister's inner circle.

Netanyahu knows that the key to his political future lies to a large extent in Sharon's hands. The stronger he gets, the stronger will be Sharon's motivation to bring the walls tumbling down on both of them. In recent days, Netanyahu has been telling Likud activists that when he lost in the Likud primaries to Sharon, he stayed on: "I didn't dream of causing a split, I didn't dream of violating the rules of the game. Why can't Sharon behave like that?"

`Planet of the Apes'

A certain Likud MK, an opponent of the disengagement, met last Tuesday evening with several friends at a festive event. They spoke about the upcoming convention of the Likud central committee, perhaps by mid-September, at which it will probably be decided to move up the preliminary elections for chairman of the Likud - which means an expression of no-confidence in Sharon and the beginning of a major political battle.

The MK was pleased by the prospect of a Sharon defeat. Someone drew his attention to the fact that such a move would automatically lead to early Knesset elections as well as internal elections in the Likud central committee. Sixteen current MKS are expected to leave the next Knesset, according to the Likud election system. Oh, said the MK, turning pale, who needs that now? Suddenly, a convention of the central committee no longer seemed to him like such a wonderful idea.

All these events in the Likud remind Yisrael Katz of the film "Planet of the Apes." At the end of that old classic with Charlton Heston, after years of traveling in a spaceship and a visit to the planet where apes are the rulers and human beings the slaves, the spaceship lands on Earth. Heston ventures forth from the entrance of the spaceship, sees the Statue of Liberty broken and shattered, understands what happened, holds his head in his hands and cries out: "We have succeeded in destroying the Earth!"

"We had a stable government," says Katz, explaining the metaphor, "we dismantled it, then the High Court of Justice shortened the Knesset term for us by a year, and moved up elections to 2006, and now with our own hands we are taking a Likud with 40 seats, tearing ourselves apart with our interminable struggles, and shortening our term by another year. Soon the moment will come when we hold our heads in our hands and say: `Oy vey, we have succeeded in destroying the Likud!'"