Sharon-Netanyahu War as Likud Demands: Will the Real Hard-liner Please Stand Up?

Infighting over such volatile issues as that of CIA observers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has inflamed Israel's ruling Likud party, with rival camps trading accusations over abandonment of right-wing principles.

Infighting over such volatile issues as that of CIA observers has inflamed Israel's ruling party, with warring camps representing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his resurgent predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu trading accusations over abandonment of right-wing principles.

Batting away cries of "Resign!" and "Bring back Bibi! [Netanyahu]," Sharon faced a cyclone of home-field criticism Sunday night, as both party rivals addressed the Likud Central Committee. "You'll just go on squawking, and I'll go on dealing with terror," Sharon declared to a chorus of Netanyahu backers. "That's the difference between us."

Netanyahu, who has walked a fine line between protestations of support for Sharon and undisguised criticism of his policies, pressed the attack Monday, telling Israel Radio that the bulk of Israel's largest right-wing party rejected the relative military restraint that has characterized Sharon's premiership:

"Do you have any doubt what would have happened if there had been a vote last night?" Netanyahu offered, indicating that the Likud was ready, if not formally able, to restore him to the party's number one spot.

"I think it was absolutely clear that a decisive majority - and I'm now speaking in understatement - of those Central Committee members present, wants a change in the policy, and if they were to take a vote as to who favors restraint and who favors a change in the policy, and I think [the latter] would gain a crushing majority."

The issue of having foreign observers - long opposed by Israel as a diplomatic prize to the Palestinians, as well as one-sided interference with Israel's sovereignty and freedom of military action - was one of a range of indirect but unmistakable barbs Netanyahu directed at Sharon's policymaking directions.

But Sharon stalwarts mounted counter-offensives Monday, accusing the former prime minister of painting a false picture of an idyllic Netanyahu administration which critics said had opened the door to the deployment of foreign observers by agreeing to a U.S. supervision mechanism three years ago.

"There is one head of the movement, and he is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon," said Likud cabinet minister Reuven Rivlin. "It was very tough for me to listen to former prime minister and ex-party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, come and cast aspersions on the prime minister over the observer issue, for example, which is something that I oppose with all severity.

"But, to my great sorrow and heartfelt chagrin and criticism at the time, the man who brought the observer mechanism into being was my friend and my prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at Wye Plantation," Rivlin added.

Under strong coaxing by then-president Bill Clinton at the 1998 Wye summit, Netanyahu agreed to a weekly meeting of U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian security officials chaired by a CIA representative. "I said then that we must not begin with this mechanism, because we are liable to be forced [to agree to a supervisory force] by our own words," Netanyahu said.

The concept of an international observer force, which Palestinian leaders have urged since the first Intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s, has gained momentum in recent weeks, notably with the weekend backing of G-8 leaders.

Sharon, for his part, has played his cards close to the vest on the observer issue, allowing his Labor Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, to make cautious, hazily worded expressions of support for an expanded CIA contingent.

Netanyahu, undeterred, said Monday that the purpose of the CIA observers deployed since 1998 was to keep watch on the Palestinians, not on Israeli forces. He said their brief was "to check the implementation of the explicit commitments of the Palestinians that we set out in the Wye agreements. These observers were not aimed at overseeing the IDF."

A ballot-bruised Netanyahu ceded stewardship of the party to Sharon in 1999, after Labor challenger Ehud Barak overwhelmed the then-Likud prime minister at the polls. Netanyahu hinted at the time that he believed Sharon's role would be that of a caretaker party leader, who would yield the top spot to Netanyahu after a vaguely-framed time-out.

However, an unexpectedly accelerated pace of political events - and the newfound vigor of the septuagenarian Sharon in opposing and overcoming Barak in a record landslide election early this year - left media-star Netanyahu in an unaccustomed shadow. Only recently, with hawks chiding Sharon for what they view as inaction in fighting terrorism, has Netanyahu emerged to bathe anew in the party limelight.

According to Ha'aretz commentator Akiva Eldar, Sharon is not the only leader whom the observer force issue could place in political jeopardy. Eldar argues that Bush's order to recall CIA mediators, in one of the first acts of his presidency, may soon come back to haunt him.

"The dispatching of American observers to the territories will raise the level of American involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to unprecedented heights," Eldar writes in Monday's paper.

"If the Palestinians and Israelis agree to this proposal, Bush, who was reluctant even to send an American mediator to meetings in hotels, will find himself sending American troops into the very center of the arena where the fighting has been taking place. Had he not disbanded the American peace team and had he not settled for the appointment of low-level emissaries, it is quite possible that he would not have found himself being dragged into the position of having to send an observer force to the territories."

Eldar notes that, "Like Bill Clinton, Bush was warned, as he took his initial steps in Washington, that he would derive no benefit whatsoever by jumping into the Middle Eastern quagmire. Like Clinton, Bush was drawn into the murky waters of the Middle East against his will. Like nearly all their predecessors, Clinton learned and Bush has recently learned that the price of sitting on the sidelines while Arabs and Jews shed blood in the arena can be far higher than the price of trying to keep the warring parties at arm's length from one another.

"When the subject is the Middle East, the world does not expect 100-percent success in finding a solution to the dispute - but it certainly demands that the U.S. make a maximum effort to put out the flames."