Background / The Battle Sharon Can't Afford to Lose - and Might

Independence Day marks the home stretch of the most important campaign of Sharon's life. A week ago, it seemed that the fight for his Gaza plan was one battle that Sharon couldn't lose. Now it seems it may fail, and in a uniquely Israeli manner: death by ambivalence.

It is the day that most painfully limns Israel's status as the world capital of ambivalence - irreconcilable, permanent, effortless as breath.

Once a year, with the abruptness of news of calamity, an endless, soul-grinding, air-raid siren-pierced day of mourning for fallen soldiers and civilians slain by terror reinvents itself at nightfall as a frenzied 24 hours of revelry celebrating the anniversary of Israel's 1948 declaration of independence.

This year, Independence Day also marks the home stretch of the most important campaign of Ariel Sharon's life.

Just a week ago, he seemed to have locked in the support he needed to sweep to victory in the May 2 primary, in which Likud party members are to seal the fate of his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

But in a country in which ambivalence is one of the few undepletable natural resources, the vote is anything but a sure thing.

As late as last week, it appeared to many in Israel that this was one battle that Sharon couldn't lose. Riding a wave of support from U.S. President George W. Bush's far-reaching if vaguely worded assurances on Israeli policy, the Sharon bandwagon within the tough-minded Likud took on additional momentum from the IDF assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

It is, as well, a battle that Sharon cannot afford to lose. He has staked his prestige, and his future, on the plan. Last month, the prime minister's closest confidant - his son, Likud lawmaker Omri Sharon - warned Likud members that a loss in the vote could cause his father to resign.

Polls taken early this month showed Sharon winning the referendum by a margin nearing 60 percent. Last week, Sharon seemed to have sewed up the loose ends in his plebiscite campaign by winning promises of support from two of the high-profile holdouts in the apex of the Likud hierarchy: finance minister and party rival Benjamin Netanyahu, and education minister and future prime ministerial hopeful Limor Livnat.

After an excruciating wait and an announcement that sounded for all the world like a speech of reasoned opposition to the plan, the final holdout, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, the Likud leader with the most to lose personally from the Gaza plan, came on board as well.

Nonetheless, in a state in which immutable contradiction is a staple of everyday routine, Sharon's initiative may well collapse in the Likud vote, and in a uniquely Israeli manner: death by ambivalence.

Reluctance to part with GazaIn recent days, ambivalence within the Likud has grown, as party rank-and-file have demonstrated mounting reluctance to part with Gaza and with decades of bedrock party doctrine.

Sagging enthusiasm for the Sharon plan was reflected in weekend polls, with a Channel Two television survey indicating that the Likud voters most likely to turn out for the voting would defeat the Gaza initiative.

Most perplexing for Sharon was a series of meetings he held Sunday with Netanyahu, Livnat and Shalom, whom one media wag dubbed "the three Trappists" for their silence since grudgingly boarding Sharon's withdrawal train.

Hoping to marshal the formidable lobbying talents of the three - and especially, the crucial voting blocs they control within the Likud - Sharon appealed to each minister to take to the hustings to help him clear the make-or-break hurdle of the Likud referendum.

The answer, if not the ministers' delicate phrasing, was clear-cut.

"There can be no better definition for the refusal of ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Limor Livnat and Silvan Shalom to work to win support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, than calling it a slap in the face," says Haaretz commentator Yossi Verter.

"Sharon needs them, and their response was: 'No.'

The smile of the chairmanAccording to Verter, "Their motives are pretty transparent: They believe, at least some of them, that Sharon is going to lose in the May 2 Likud referendum, and they don't want their names linked to the fiasco."

It has little helped Sharon that recent tough talk about the chairman of the Palestinian Authority - political bread-and-butter in the Arafat-loathing Likud - has blown back in his face.

Last weekend, as polls showed Likud support for the Gaza plan melting, Sharon said in a television interview that he was no longer bound by pledges he had made to Bush to refrain from harming Arafat.

"I said in our first meeting about three years ago that I accepted his request not to harm Arafat physically," Sharon said. "But I am released from this commitment. I release myself from this commitment regarding Arafat."

A thunderstorm of Arab and other world criticism followed, which could have proven a campaign plus to Sharon in the contrarian-minded Likud. But the lift was to be short-lived, undercut by an unusually blunt response by a senior Bush administration official, and by the evident glee the episode had brought to a long-glum Arafat.

"We have made it entirely clear to the Israeli government that we would oppose any such action [to harm Arafat], and have done so again in the wake of these remarks," the administration official said. "We consider a pledge a pledge."

Arafat - for whom the spotlight seems to shine of late only when he is under threat of Israeli attack - struck a defiant pose with evident relish, basking in reporters' attention and smiling as he declared he was unafraid to die a martyr's death.

Meanwhile, Sharon aides are said to be hoping that, if nothing else, the narrowing margin reflected in polls could compel Sharon supporters to overcome apathy - and ideological ambivalence - and appear in much greater numbers on election day.

By taking the apparent route of least resistance, the three Likud fence-sitters may seem to be playing it safe on the Gaza issue, which cuts at the very heart of the Greater Israel concept that has long been a central pillar of the Likud.

But if Sharon wins the gamble of his life, the intra-Likud Battle of Gaza, the "Trappists'" safe route may prove rocky indeed.

"Sharon won't forget how the three gave him the cold shoulder. If he wins the referendum on May 2 and escapes indictment in the Greek island affair, he will know how to reward them," Verter writes in Monday's paper, referring to corruption allegations that could lead to an indictment for Sharon, and thus the end of his career.

"He cannot replace them. They are too powerful. But there is no one like Sharon when it comes to remembering who helped him in a time of trouble, and who did not."