Analysis: The Likud Rebels Are Committing Political Suicide Gleefully

The MKs may be ending their own career, but if they are going down, Sharon is going down with them.

Everything the Likud rebels have touched so far has turned to failure; they couldn't stop the disengagement, or even stall it. They couldn't make Ariel Sharon noxious; he has never been so popular. They couldn't prevent the Labor Party's entry into the government, and the formation of the evacuation compensation coalition.

But this streak of failures appeared to have come to an end on Monday.

It seems extremely likely that the rebels, led by their captain Benjamin Netanyahu, are about to register an impressive success: With their own hands, they will cut short the Knesset's term and their party's days in office, without a shred of political logic, simply to wreak vengeance on the chair of their party. Some will not return to the Knesset to contribute their wisdom and profound thoughts. As the famous saying goes, they will cut off their noses to spite their faces. It's not every day, a senior Likud member said Monday, that you see people committing suicide so gleefully. Like whales swimming ashore, someone from another party once said.

"This is the first time," Sharon said on Monday, "that a ruling party voluntarily forgoes an entire year in power." Sharon didn't wait for the Likud tribunal decision to reach this dismal conclusion. He knows he has lost hold of his party: the rank and file are hostile toward him, the central committee loathes him, and the tribunal treats him like an ordinary member of the movement.

God knows what he's looking for there. Maybe he's waiting for the penny to drop in the central committee. After all, nobody in the Likud has an interest in curtailing their party's tenure: not the central committee members, who feed off their proximity to power, not the MKs, some 16 of whom will not be returning to the 17th Knesset, not the heads of local authorities, who are dependent on their representatives in the government, nor the ministers whom nobody promises will retain their posts.

Unless a veritable political miracle occurs in the coming month, the Likud Central Committee will decide on September 26 to advance the primaries - which would push up Knesset elections, perhaps to as early as February-March 2006. What a stable democracy Israel is: Five elections within 10 years, since May 1996. That's once every two years, on average.

Netanyahu, the man behind this maneuver, can't wait anymore. As far as he's concerned, the premiership is just around the bend. If the polls are correct, he's making the mistake of his life. Likud chair he will be, perhaps, but prime minister he will not.

Sharon gave a relaxed - he would say coolheaded - interview on Monday on Channel 10's London & Kirschenbaum program. He still doesn't know what he'll do next month; will he fight in the central committee against advancing the primaries, or will he give in? And if he loses, as all assessments predict, will he still take Netanyahu on with the rank and file, or take advantage of the shrill and sanctimonious central committee convention to give the speech of a lifetime, the speech of disengaging from the Likud and embarking on a new path?

Sharon doesn't know it, but some are preparing a surprise for him in the Likud faction if he chooses that option. If he announces his withdrawal, the Likud faction might decide the very next day to present a motion for no-confidence in the government. It is estimated that between 27 and 30 Likud MKs would join, in an effort to speed up elections and prevent Sharon from ensconcing himself in a new party.

The central committee convenes a few days after Sharon returns from what promises to be a praise-laden visit to the United Nations. Sharon will use the time to meet donors. If he intends to embark on a new path in October, he will need a lot of money, and where are the big bucks if not in the Big Apple?