Looking to Be the Leader in 2006

The race for the Likud leadership, "A leader is born, 2006," moved into the quarterfinals on Independence Day.

The race for the Likud leadership, "A leader is born, 2006," moved into the quarterfinals on Independence Day. The finance minister and defense minister stood on the starting line and announced that they want to run for the premiership of Israel. One did so enthusiastically; the other said he does not "rule it out."

They thus joined Ariel Sharon, who in his own words is "determined" to run for another term. A reading of the interviews Shaul Mofaz and Benjamin Netanyahu gave to Yedioth Ahronoth, in which they presented their political and economic wares to the public, gave the impression that this is a titanic struggle between two world views.

On each and every issue, if Netanyahu is in favor Mofaz is opposed, and vice versa. The disengagement: "grease on the wheels of terror" against "an improvement of our security and international situation." The settler houses to be evacuated: leave them in place or "demolish them to the foundations." The economy: "the socioeconomic gap is no less dangerous than terror" against "economic independence in three to four years." The generals of the army: "the most powerful works committee in the country," clashes with "a responsible group."

What a battle! What mud wrestling! Trouble is, both wrestlers are trying to keep dry. It is easy to debate the disengagement, which Netanyahu also accepts as a fait accompli, and for which responsibility will anyway be Sharon's.

Netanyahu's vote against it - with Labor in the government and the evacuation guaranteed a large majority - was meant to position him politically inside the Likud and not really to influence the decision.

The same is true for Mofaz's position on the budget, which turned him into "the social minister." The interesting aspect of the battle between the Likud candidates is where they are in agreement. When it comes to the main issue that will preoccupy the next government, there are no real differences in their positions. It is clear to all that after the elections, Israel will struggle to annex the large settlement blocs in the West Bank, and try to avoid talks with the Palestinians.

Sharon promises that the settlement blocs "will be part of Israel, connected territorially, and with much larger populations." Netanyahu wants to fence in the blocs quickly and connect them to Israel, so the Palestinians don't celebrate Israel's departure from Gaza. Mofaz promises that the disengagement will enable "holding onto the large blocs in Judea and Samaria and to protect Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel."

Sharon and Netanyahu also want to keep the Jordan Valley, and the finance minister wants to keep the area south of Hebron. Nobody is enthusiastic about renewing negotiations with the Palestinians. Mofaz and Sharon are disappointed with Mahmoud Abbas, who is not fighting terror, and they say they won't move after the disengagement "until the terror infrastructure is eradicated." Netanyahu refuses to consider Abbas as a partner for any agreement.

Every Israeli politician zigzags rightward before the elections and leftward afterward. Even in those above-quoted statements, one can find cracks of flexibility. Nobody rules out evacuating the illegal outposts or dismantling the isolated settlements. But the change is difficult, and risks political collapse, especially if as expected, the next Likud list is more rightist and `rebellious' than the current one.

There is no vacuum on the other side, either. The Hamas radicals reject the room for flexibility adopted by Abbas. Against the Israeli demand to annex Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel and maybe even the Jordan Valley, the Palestinians will demand a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines. This all guarantees that "Chapter 2" in the West Bank will not be a stroll in the park after the breakthrough of the disengagement from Gaza, but an exhausting struggle, and apparently a violent one, to shape the eastern border of Israel.