Background / Sharon's Options - A Survival Guide

Opponents argue that the disengagement plan could threaten the very future of Sharon's existing political legacies - the settlements and the Likud. Comrades fret that the plan could put an abrupt end to the PM's long career. If Sharon is to survive, what are his options?

If politics is the art of the possible, the enigmatic Old Master called Sharon has long seemed drawn - even dangerously so - to the palette of the impossible.

In the past, he has defied bedrock maxims of statecraft to reimagine the political landscape, conceiving the Likud in the 1970s as an instrument to end decades of unchallenged Labor hegemony, spearheading the settlements as a central, perhaps the primary, issue of Israeli geography and diplomacy.

Now Ariel Sharon is feverishly at work on his flawed final masterwork - a grand design that has outraged his former disciples, and which many of his comrades seem hard-pressed to fully support: a withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank.

It is a measure that has already sliced fault lines the length of the political spectrum, at once tearing at the ideological and political fabric of the leftist Yahad, torn over the issue of a pull-out bereft of peace talks; the center-left Labor, rent over the unity government issue; the broad-spectrum Shinui, split over pro- and anti-withdrawal MKs; the settler-dominated National Religious Party, cleft over bolting the government; and, most of all, Sharon's own Likud.

Opponents have argued that the disengagement plan could threaten the very future of Sharon's existing political legacies - the settlements and the Likud. Comrades fret that the disengagement could put an abrupt end to Sharon's long career.

If Sharon is to survive, what are his options?

The numbers

As originally constituted, the solid Knesset majority Sharon forged after his victory in the February 2003 general elections was in essence Israel's most right-wing government ever, incorporating both the National Union, the only Israeli party to openly advocate "transfer" of Palestinians as a solution to the Mideast conflict, and the settler-dominated National Religious Party, which is on record as opposing evacuation of any settlements and outposts, even those which courts have ruled illegal:

Likud - 40Shinui - 15NRP - 6National Union - 7

TOTAL: - 68

As of Monday, National Union had followed its suddenly sacked ministers out of the government, leaving Sharon with a bare-bones 61 seats, the very minimum for a Knesset majority.

As no-confidence votes and a brace of other parliamentary dangers cast doubt on the survivability of the Sharon government, NRP leader Effi Eitam pushed his faction to part ways with the government, a move that would leave the smarting coalition with only 55 seats.

At the same time, a large group of Likud rebels opposed to the withdrawal met Monday to talk tactics, with rumor in the air of some Likud MKs withholding their support from Sharon and abstaining in crucial parliamentary votes.

Pundits predicted that a no-confidence vote slated for Monday evening would bring together a volatile, no-love-lost amalgam of strange bedfellows, with Sharon assured of less than 50 votes, as follows:

Voting in favor of government: Likud - 30Shinui - 15Additional two votes possible from one "refugee" MK from the National Union, and a second from One Nation.

Voting no-confidence, in favor of toppling the government:

Shas - 11National Union - 6Yahad-Meretz - 6United Torah Judaism - 5Arab parties - 8

TOTAL: - 37

Keeping the government from falling was the announced "safety net" of the Labor Party's 19-plus votes, expected to be cast in the abstention column. Had Labor opted to vote no-confidence, the measure could have carried easily and the government a thing of the past.

As many as 10 Likud rebels could also abstain in the vote. It was unclear whether the six National Religious Party legislators would abstain or vote no-confidence.

Facing the parliamentary challenge, and no end of such votes down road, what can Sharon do to stay in power, and drive his plan forward?

Keeping enemies closer I

Late last month, a number of analysts pronounced the prime minister politically dead. Sharon had been trounced in a Likud withdrawal plebiscite and three key ministers - Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, and Education Minister Limor Livnat - appeared to oppose the withdrawal plan to which Sharon had staked his administration.

Said commentator Ben Kaspit, "There is the sense of the end of a [prime ministerial] term, the end of an era."

Sharon lost no time in bringing the three to heel, however. If they had questioned the seriousness of his intention to power the withdrawal forward, his sudden firing of two National Union ministers Friday seems to have erased the doubt.

The sackings appear to have spurred the marathon intra-Likud talks that led to the curious compromise proposal that raised the art of double-speak to new levels, enabling all sides to claim a victory when the three joined Sharon in passing it on Sunday.

Keeping enemies closer II

In the short term, one of Sharon's most effective tools in suppressing dissent on the right, within both the NRP and the Likud, may be wielding the Sword of Damocles always hovering over Israeli hawks, the prospect of the Labor Party joining a unity government.

"Opposition to a unity government has the effect of unifying the Likud. Unity takes away jobs and power, and it turns Likud legislators into marginal figures," says Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar.

"The threat of unity gives Sharon tremendous power. It also helps [the head of NRP's moderate wing] Zevulun Orlev, who favors staying in the government. The rumors of unity greatly aid Sharon. The leaks of meetings with Shimon Peres were very wise."

All in all, he says, a Labor Party outside the government may provide Sharon much more help in getting his plan passed, than a Labor Party within the government.

Another paradoxically powerful weapon in Sharon's arsenal is the possible consequence of a bid by NRP and Likud rebel back-benchers to help bring down the coalituion.

Many firebrand hawks in the Likud are seen as likely to refrain from the move, much as they may yearn to take it, because there is no guarantee that they will be returned to parliament in the next Knesset. "They are waving an 'unloaded gun.' If they oppose Sharon in the primaries, and without Netanyahu, their chances of re-election are small. There is also no room for them in the National Union.

"Moreover, if they leave, the disengagement may remain."

Relative moderates in the NRP are also reluctant to topple the government, sensitive over past instances in which the right drove the right from power, to the delight of the left.

Dividing and ruling The continued support of the restive Three remains the fundamental key to Sharon's survival, argues Eldar.

"If Sharon loses the three of them, who head the three major camps in the Likud, that's the end of the story for him. At the same time, the moment that the three are 'neutralized,' the other opponents within the Likud have no real leader."

Ironically, he notes, it was Sharon's initial disengagement proposal that first succeeded in joining the forces of the three party rivals and creating a united front.

Until he rocked the Likud with the disengagement proposal, conflicts of political interest kept the Three divided, and Sharon secure in rule. "All three view themselves as potential prime ministers.The disengagement has since engaged the Three in synchronizing positions." As a result, the prime minister's maneuverability, playing one off the others, has been compromised, Eldar says.

The Three also find it hard to forgive Sharon for what they view as having reneged on his public vow to abide by the results of the Likud referendum, and, by force of politics, pressing them to do the same.

This week, Shalom showed signs of trying to re-divide and rule, dispatching Shalom in a media-saturated visit to Cairo to tout the disengagement, thrusting the foreign minister to center stage and the other two to the relative wings.

Sharon may in the future distribute political sweets to Livnat, such as promoting her to membership in the security cabinet.

As for Netanyahu, the finance minister could be dispatched to Washington for talks on U.S. aid for security compensation under a future redeployment.

The more each of the three is granted participation in efforts to promote the disengagement, the theory goes, the greater is their personal interest in having it succeed

Playing for timeSharon's trump card may be the timeline he has set for the disengagement proposal, whose wording allows still-loyal hawks, even in the NRP, to assure constituents that nothing on the ground has yet taken place.

Under the plan's cagey wording, the cabinet need not go on record as ordering the evacuation of settlements until March next year.

"No matter what, March will be a whole new ball game," Eldar says, citing the end of the U.S. campaign and the presidential inauguration that will precede it. "If Bush stays, he will no longer need the Jewish lobby, and he can be much firmer [in his dealings with Israel]."

Bush may also have a price to pay in compensation for Arab support for his impending transfer of authority in Iraq, in the form of assurances to "deliver Israel" after his re-election, Eldar says.

At the same time, if Egypt takes an active role in deploying hundreds of advisors to Palestinian police forces in Gaza, the step could allay Israeli fears of the vacuum created by an IDF exit.

"There may also be a new road map, a new Bush peace plan. A whole new ball game."