Running Scared

In the wake of the surveys, Netanyahu is moving more to the right and escalating his criticism of Sharon for which he doesn't mind paying a high price in public opinion. Sharon, for his part, is considering 'Likud II'.

Ariel Sharon has not yet veered to the right, as pundits assumed he would the day after the disengagement. However, Benjamin Netanyahu has moved very strongly to the right. He did so after he discovered two days ago that he and Uzi Landau are fighting over the right to vie against Sharon in the second round of the primaries for the leadership of the Likud.

In a three-way race, Netanyahu and Landau are neck and neck. In actual fact, Landau does not pose a threat to Netanyahu, because he is not viewed as a realistic candidate for prime minister, and also because of the presence of Moshe Feiglin in the race. Feiglin, from the extreme right, is siphoning off a few percentage points from Landau. But Netanyahu is running scared. That happens to him from time to time. He is familiar with the following point that appeared in the Haaretz-Dialog survey this week: When Likud members were asked who, in their opinion, represents the values of the Likud and opposition to the disengagement in the most genuine fashion, 67 percent voted "Landau" and only 15 percent said "Netanyahu." According to these figures, Landau is a strong, not esoteric candidate, and it is clear that he has no plans to drop out of the race just to make things easier for Netanyahu. That is why Netanyahu's conclusion was immediate: to intensify, escalate and redouble his criticism of Sharon.

It started Wednesday morning, in an unplanned interview with Razi Barkai on Army Radio, and continued the same day with a slew of television interviews. Netanyahu pitched into Sharon directly for the first time: "He betrayed the trust of his voters," said the former finance minister in reference to the prime minister. "The man is not fit to lead, either the country or the Likud." Soon Netanyahu will lose his restraint and say out loud what he has been holding in for many months that the disengagement would never have been born if not for Sharon's legal difficulties.

Netanyahu will try in the coming weeks to overtake Landau from the right. That is not an easy task, considering the fact that on Landau's right there is only a wall, and even it has a tendency to crack under the pressure. Netanyahu will move increasingly in the direction of the extreme right and he doesn't care if he has to pay a price in public opinion. He must take over the leadership of the right wing, which is not enamored of him. If he has to excoriate and vilify Sharon as Landau does, he is willing to make that sacrifice. He is convinced that the day after he is elected chairman of the Likud, he will succeed in changing his spots and veer back to the center, just as he did on the eve of the 1996 elections, when he promised to adopt the Oslo agreement. If it worked once, why not try it again now? How does that song by Shalom Hanoch go? "The public is an idiot, the public will pay."

Going homeA number of Netanyahu aides have started to hold talks with journalists. In these talks, they all make the same prediction: Sharon is on his way home. He will realize that he has no chance in the Likud and will give up all the hopeless "bangs." Sharon, they say, lacks the energy needed for such a complex political and personal step. He has aged. Mentally, he is fine, but in another couple of years, it is doubtful that he will be competent to serve as prime minister.

A Likud Knesset member, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, talked this week about the difference between Sharon of two years ago and Sharon of today: Two years ago, he would lecture-wrangle-philosophize with hardly a glance at the written notes before him. Today, he arrives with two or three typed pages and reads, heavily and wearily, from them. Even his sarcastic stings, says the MK, are not the same as they once were.

Netanyahu's supporters want to send a message to faction members who might be considering joining a future party Sharon may form: In the Likud you will always have a home. Forever. In another party, whether with Sharon or without him, you may have one Knesset term at most probably a short one after which, nothing. Zip. Because Sharon won't be around any more, nor will the party.

Meanwhile, various maneuvers are being prepared in the Likud, the purpose of which is to prevent any future Likud leader from taking steps without first getting permission from the Likud Central Committee that extreme, vociferous and vehement body.

Minister Yisrael Katz has prepared a proposal of this kind that would impose future sanctions on any Likud MK or minister who votes in the Knesset in favor of evacuation of settlements. Now Minister Danny Naveh, chair of the Likud Bureau, is advancing a proposal of his own that would prevent the party's MKs and ministers from supporting the government or the Knesset in additional unilateral withdrawals; it would require them to condition any future concessions related to permanent settlements in Judea and Samaria and the Golan on a referendum.

A senior Likudnik, one whose name has been mentioned as being likely to quit the party together with Sharon, said this week in a private conversation that his tendency is to remain in the Likud, but when he sees proposals like that, which have been popping up like mushrooms all over the place, he has to think twice about whether his place is indeed in the Likud. We, said this source, are gradually turning into an extremist party that borders on the lunatic fringe, a party that wants to deny its representatives in the Knesset and the government the freedom to decide, the freedom and responsibility to make determinations for the benefit of the people and the state. I have no place, he said, in a party like that.

Lost cause?In his heart, Sharon knows that his situation in the Likud is critical, that only a real miracle can pull him out of the deep waters rising around him. Sharon realizes that there are certain actions that cannot be forgiven, and in the eyes of Likudniks, the act of disengagement was an act of this kind. To the disengagement should be added the feeling of betrayal. Sharon twice betrayed his voters first, when he ran in the 2003elections with the slogan "The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv, and the fate of Kfar Darom is the fate of Negba" and a year later announced thedisengagement plan. And again in 2004, when he repudiated the results of the Likud referendum that responded with a resounding "no" to the disengagement.

Those same 150,000 Likud members are looking for revenge, and they are waiting for him now, rubbing their hands in anticipation like hotheaded football fans who gather at the entrance to the football field to take out their anger on a player who sold them out to the opposing team.

No one in Sharon's vicinity has heard him say so. On the contrary, he says that he plans to fight for his home, for the Likud, and win. He has to say that, and it must be conceded that theoretically it is possible. A survey of Likud members published in Haaretz gave Netanyahu 47 percent to Sharon's 30 percent (on the assumption that Landau is out of the picture). But even according to this survey, there are still 23 percent that have not yet made up their minds. The assumption is that these 'don't knows' lean in principle in Sharon's direction and are waiting to see what will happen after the disengagement. Only if the rosiest forecasts are realized and in our neighborhood, rosy forecasts rarely come true could the majority of them still throw their support to Sharon. Even then, it would be very difficult to see Sharon defeating Netanyahu among Likud members. It looks like a lost cause.

It is on this far-reaching scenario that Sharon's people are counting. But the numbers are against him and not only when looking at Sharon's situation versus Netanyahu, and versus Landau, but also regarding the in-depth questions. In the Haaretz-Dialog survey conducted in the middle of the week among Likud members, participants were asked to say how they would vote if they discovered on the eve of the primaries that Sharon could bring the Likud more Knesset seats than Netanyahu. Would you, the Netanyahu and Landau supporters were asked, consider voting for Sharon? Some 86 percent said no; only 10 percent said yes.

The Likud members were also asked if they believed Sharon when he said that there would be no additional unilateral disengagements. About 67 percent said they did not; only 30 percent said they did.

These are Sharon's opening figures. More than considering running in a seemingly hopeless race inside the Likud, he is seriously considering splitting the Likud and heading a separate list, perhaps Likud II, although the option of a "big bang" a shared list including Likud moderates together with Labor and Shinui dropouts is also being considered by the prime minister's associates. The surveys give such a party a lot of Knesset seats, a veritable downpour of mandates for every possible split and breakaway. It is tempting, it is inviting, but it is dangerous. Experience shows that in the surveys, it always starts with a cloudburst and ends with a drought.