Background / Sharon: Remaking Israel's Party of Revolt

If he means to take unilateral steps, Sharon, the feared and respected warrior who has now spent more than half his adult life as a political revolutionary, must first remake the Jewish state's original party of revolt, the Likud, into the spearhead of the moderate center.

If the fundamental test of a democracy is war - endangering domestic freedoms and moral values under the demands of repelling the enemy - then it may be said that the test of a revolution is the prospect of making peace.

For Ariel Sharon, the twin challenges have now become intertwined, in a declared effort to wage uncompromising war, while sacrificing settlements and the map of the traditional Land of Israel for the sake of peace and the preservation of the democratic character of the Zionist revolution.

Should the current diplomatic impasse continue, Sharon has vowed to force the Mideast conflict into a new phase, taking dramatic unilateral steps to throw the current reality off balance. Enraging rightists, he has pledged to relocate settlers and evacuate isolated, hard-to-defend West Bank and Gaza enclaves, many of which he himself established over decades of tireless settlement work.

Enraging leftists and Palestinians, he has spoken of unilaterally defining temporary borders of Israel and a provisional Palestinian state.

If he is to succeed in what, in Israeli terms, is a revolutionary plan, Sharon must re-fashion the two revolutions he personally spawned: the Likud and the settlements.

Sharon must first remake the Jewish state's original party of revolt, the Likud, into the spearhead of the moderate center.

It was Sharon's concept of the Likud which turned a perpetual bridesmaid faction called Herut - a direct descendent of the militant, frequently violent pre-state Irgun and Lehi underground movements - into the party of power for most of the last quarter-century.

If his declared aims are to be realized, Sharon must also contend with and re-fashion the other Israeli revolution that owes more to him than to any other leader: the settlement enterprise that has placed nearly a quarter of a million Jews in the West Bank and which was originally designed to foil the establishment of an independent Palestine.

It was both Sharon the warrior and Sharon the revolutionary that this week faced down the hornet's nest of Israeli politics, the Likud Central Committee.

So volatile and unruly are the Likud body's meetings, that one prime-time news broadcast's coverage of the convention began with a close-up of the strong bolts that fixed delegates' chairs to the floor - an unsubtle reminder of past melees in which central committeemen hurled chairs and other objects at each one other.

Sharon clearly knew what he could expect from hard-liners in the influential Likud grouping. His every mention of the dismantling of settlements and of the possibility of Palestinian statehood was greeted with booing, boorish gestures, and signs recalling settler rage with the late Yitzhak Rabin.

A large placard held aloft by one delegate bracketed a portrait of Yasser Arafat with the words "The Sharon Plan - a Prize for Terrorism."

"It would have been almost unnatural, even abnormal, had there been no cries of protest from what is in my view an ever-decreasing part of the Likud Central Committee," said Sharon's Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Unlike Sharon, a perpetual political outsider born and raised in a Labor-affiliated farming community, Olmert is a genuine Likud blueblood, the son of an Irgun fighter in the ranks of underground leader Menachem Begin, later a member of Knesset in Begin's opposition Herut.

There was more than a little reason to believe that the prime minister saw the hard-line honking as playing directly into his hands. It cast him as the embattled statesman, defending the vital interests of the nation as a whole, in the face of extremists mocking the man, the office and the state as they lobbied for their one cause.

"Sharon played the courageous leader, unafraid of telling the rabble the truth to its face; the rabble - a handful of serial booers - did what they were expected to do," noted Haaretz political commentator Yossi Verter.

"I'm going to make them mad," Verter quoted Sharon as telling Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a minute before he took the podium at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium - known in Hebrew as Heichal Hatarbut, the Temple of Culture - to speak to the 1,000 delegates.

"Don't help me," Sharon added. Later, at the podium, when jeering delegates were told by the convention chairman to drop their placards, Sharon broke his speaking stride to tell the demonstrators, "As far as I'm concerned, you can keep on waving those papers. I bear the responsibility for bringing peace, and that is what I will do."

As Sharon brought his speech to a close that suggested defiance of the hecklers, with an emphasis on bringing "quiet" as well as peace to Israel, prominent television anchor Yaakov Eilon committed a rare - and apt - gaffe as the Likud's expansive campaign song drowned out all else.

"Once again the jungle - pardon me, the jingle - has returned," Eilon reported from the convention hall. "Actually, there has been a jungle here at times during the Likud convention, as the people of [far-right adopted Likud gadfly Moshe] Feiglin tried to interfere with Prime Minister Sharon with their shouts."

Throughout his premiership, Sharon has been mindful of opinion polls showing that on two key issues, dismantling isolated settlements and Palestinian statehood, an unwavering two-thirds majority of Israelis has shown strong willingness to compromise in efforts toward an eventual peace settlement.

To the chagrin of settlers and their hawkish supporters, the figures have been all but unaffected by Arafat's rejectionism, hundreds of Israeli deaths at the hands of suicide bombers and roadside assassins, and the lack of any meaningful peace process.

Barak's downfallSharon has also been a careful student of the downfall of his predecessor Ehud Barak, who negotiated peace in secret with the Palestinians, making far-reaching offers that were surprises to the Israeli public until reports of their contents began to surface in the press. Unprepared for Barak's offers, the then-prime minister was stricken by a backlash at home, which may have in turn lessened Palestinian inclination to perceive the Israeli terms as realistic proposals.

According to Olmert, "the transition that we need to make our way through is a difficult one. We are not hiding this.

"True - once we believed that it was possible to settle the whole of the Land, and to establish Jewish settlement and construction in broad parts of the Land of Israel. However, reality today obligates us to reach different conclusions."

Within the Likud, backers of Sharon's initiative have stressed that the crowning legacy of the party remains the U.S.-mediated 1979 Camp David peace treaty, in which Begin agreed to a full withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and return to Israel's pre-1967 borders with Egypt, in return for Cairo's complete diplomatic recognition.

The agreement included evacuation of a string of settlements in the northern Sinai, including one of which Begin was an honorary resident.

The settlement movement, meanwhile, has long labored under the image of rigid obstructionists with selective regard for central authority and the primacy of Israeli law. Just last week, the settlers umbrella Yesha Council announced that it viewed any government attempt to evacuate the unauthorized outpost of Migron exactly as if it were an effort to dismantle a fully authorized, established settlement.

Moving further to cement his centrist image in the Monday night speech, Sharon used words recalling a 1992 victory speech by Rabin, whom Sharon served in the 1970's as chief anti-terrorism advisor. Reviled by the settlers, gruff ex-army chief Rabin was seen by most Israelis as the embodiment of tough-minded, independent thinking on diplomatic issues.

To supporters chanting "Arik, King of Israel," Sharon waved away demands by the committee members for veto power over diplomatic decisions. In phrasing reminiscent of Rabin's inaugural declaration that "It is I who will navigate," Sharon said "The prime minister is the one ultimately who must decide ... It is my responsibility to consider all the factors, to hear all the opinions, and to make the decisions. Together with the other elected representatives, I decide and I must act."

Dismissed on left and rightSharon's apparent strategy of driving for the middle seemed to have been born out Tuesday by leftist and rightist dismissals of his remarks as nothing more than rhetoric.

"His statements - 'I will act', like 'I will navigate' - certainly reminded us of something," said leftist Meretz faction chair Zehava Gal-On Tuesday. "But for all his presentations, nothing happens at all."

"This prime minister does not genuinely wish to concede on the Land of Israel," Gal-On continued. She said Sharon was "doing exactly what he did in the Lebanon war - leading a whole nation astray."

Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right National Union, said Tuesday that he had heard nothing that should make his party act on pledges to bolt the government if it takes down settlements. "As long as we are speaking of declarations and not actions, I see no reason to hurry along and pave the way for [Labor Party Chairman] Shimon Peres to enter the government."

According to Lieberman, if the rightist flank of the Likud joined forces with the hawkish parties, "we can completely neutralize all the blabbermouths and the collaborators within the Likud."

Responding to Lieberman Tuesday, Olmert acknowledged the difficulty of the shift of heart and mind away from the ideological bedrock of Greater Israel - a Jewish state encompassing all of present-day Israel, the West Bank and Gaza - which was until recently the raison d'etre of the Likud and the Israeli right as a whole

"This is something very hard for us, and for me personally," said Olmert. "Imagine how hard it is for Arik Sharon, who has no alternative but to reach this conclusion, and to instill it within a large portion of the public."

But Olmert insisted that he had no doubt that "as the circles of support widen within the Likud, people understand this more and more.

"What do you think?" asked Olmert, invoking Lieberman's nickname, "That people are really going to play the kind of petty politics practiced by Yivette Lieberman?"