Another Round for the Great Survivor

All of the downfalls and the resurgences of Ariel Sharon pale in comparison to the battle awaiting him on Thursday, when the Likud conference votes on whether to hold coalition talks with Labor.

"This will not be a `unity' government. Why would people say that it's a unity government?" wonders MK Omri Sharon, son of the prime minister. "It is a broad-based coalition headed by the Likud, with the participation of Labor. There's no parity. This is a completely different story than what we had in the mid-'80s. The two parties are not exactly the same size, either."

Everything Sharon junior is saying here a few days before the decisive and fateful vote in the Likud conference, is aimed at the conference members, and must be read in this context. All of the common struggles faced by this pair, the father and the son, all of the failures and the successes, the downfalls and the resurgences of Ariel Sharon, the greatest survivor in politics, pale in comparison to the battle awaiting him on Thursday. Omri knows the prime minister will pay the price of failure, but the responsibility will be his. It will be said that once more he could not come up with the goods. Once more he failed to encourage the voters. Once more he was a negative coefficient for his father.

Therefore, Omri intends to win this time. Although he has no record of victories in the Likud conference, he simply cannot afford to lose. "Anyone who supports the prime minister has to vote in favor," he says. "Anyone who wants the Likud to remain in power until the end of 2006 has to vote in favor. Anyone who wants Israel to have a budget has to vote in favor. Any other result will bring about elections, very soon. Sooner than people think, and I know one thing: You know how you get into elections; you don't know how you emerge from them."

Omri Sharon understands the inner soul of the conference members (they don't always understand him), but he knows very well that the ideology within them at times gives way to more earthly matters - like the Interior Ministry portfolio, which was forfeited Saturday night by Avraham Poraz of Shinui. "The prime minister will make every possible effort to keep the Interior Ministry in the hands of the Likud," says his son. "It is a major portfolio. Important. It is a portfolio that requires a large degree of sensitivity to the needs of people, of voters, sensitivity that Shinui - what can you do - doesn't have."

Sharon Jr. is usually parsimonious about his words. When it comes to sensitivity, he is willing to go into detail. "Shinui doesn't have a real audience. They're not connected to their voters like the Likud is. They don't have a central committee, they barely have any branches. I'm not saying this as a denouncement. That is how they are. With a portfolio like the interior portfolio, with all of the problems in the local councils, you have to have someone with sensitivity and commitment to his constituents."

Omri's next message, which prepares Shas as a partner in the coalition, is also suited to the wants of the conference members. "We'll go for the most stable, broadest structure of a coalition, which will enable us to remain in power until 2006," he says. "As for Shas, all we want from it is a commitment to act in accordance with government decisions and to vote in Knesset accordingly. What will happen in the cabinet [on the expected vote on executing the disengagement]? Let them vote as they see fit."

These statements reflect the stand of the prime minister, since Shas is in. Its ministers will be able to vote in the cabinet against disengagement (in any event, Sharon will have a majority). All that will be required of them is not to vote in the Knesset against the disengagement. The question is whether the prime minister thinks the same way. Not long ago, he categorically ruled out bringing in a party that opposes disengagement. A second question: What will the Labor Party have to say about this? Actually, that isn't really a question.

What about Shimon?

"What's going to be with Shimon?" folks in Labor have been asking. Once Peres conceded the foreign affairs portfolio, in order to remove from Labor's path a serious obstacle in the form of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, his aides have been demanding, in his name, that he be granted the deputy premiership. "There's a limit to how much he can be humiliated," the Peres people are saying. "He will be the deputy. That's what was agreed, and that's what's going to happen."

So that's where things stand: Nothing is for certain. Senior Likud officials say the deputy prime minister's job, which is currently held by the minister-of-many-portfolios Ehud Olmert, isn't open to negotiation. Not because Sharon feels personally indebted to his ally, and not because he has anything personal against Peres. The reason is that the position of deputy prime minister is now defined in the law, according to which if the prime minister is unable to carry out his duties (due to illness, for instance), the deputy becomes the acting prime minister, for a period of up to 100 days. Could anyone imagine, the Likudniks shudder to think, Peres being a Likud prime minister? Peres will have to make do with a meaningless title, Likud sources say, like assistant prime minister. If he thinks he's going to carry on negotiations with the Palestinians over disengagement, or with the Syrians, he's mistaken. Diplomatic negotiations have been held in the past and will be held in the future only from one place and only by one person: the Prime Minister's Office and the prime minister. Oh, really? Peres is no doubt reading, and smiling to himself. Really he won't conduct the negotiations, will he not? But he will not react, so as not to give Sharon's opponents any ammunition.

As previously stated, any such talk on the eve of the vote in the Likud conference can only help Sharon. Olmert can rest easy, it seems, his standing is assured. But what would happen if Labor issued an ultimatum? Would Sharon prefer to go to early elections, and risk everything, merely for a deputy premiership?

Rivlin unruffled

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, once a bosom buddy and now a bitter foe of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, will not take part in the vote at the Likud conference on Thursday on Labor's inclusion in the coalition. In the previous round at the conference, Rivlin voted in favor of authorizing the prime minister to conduct coalition talks with any faction he chose. This time, although he still thinks the prime minister should be permitted to broaden his coalition as he sees fit, he simply cannot vote in favor. "When I hear the prime minister reiterating that only those parties that favor disengagement will be invited into the coalition, I cannot vote in favor. After all, I'm opposed to the disengagement plan, too. How do they want me to vote? Against myself?"

In contrast to the Likud "rebels," who consider Labor's co-option into the coalition a disaster, Rivlin is indifferent to any such development. "The current policy of the Labor Party is irrelevant," he says. "The only thing that is relevant is the policy of the prime minister. After all, the government is run and its actions are determined by the prime minister. I voted in favor because Feiglin said Sharon mustn't be given permission to hold talks with Labor. But even then I said the problem is not Labor, but Sharon."

Beiga: This is suicide

MK Avraham (Beiga) Shochat, a supporter of Ehud Barak and a would-be contender for a portfolio in Ariel Sharon's cabinet, read in this column on Friday that the chairman of his party is interested in entering the coalition as soon as possible - and staying in, as long as possible. Until the legal date of the next election, in November 2006. "You don't go into a government to bring it down," says Peres. No doubt about it - the man has changed. In 1988, he entered the unity government - at the time, a genuine, equal, unity government - and lost no time in weaving his plans to bring it down, ending in the biggest fiasco of all time, the "stinking maneuver" (in which Labor made a deal with Shas in an attempt to topple the Shamir government), which broke up the Shamir coalition and left Labor on the outside.

In Shochat's opinion, the stand taken by Peres is a deal-breaker. The Labor Party is giving too much, he thinks, and getting too little. "We are paying a lot to enter the coalition: We will apparently be getting only low-ranking portfolios. In economic policy, we won't be changing it. And in elections, where we are liable to pay an electoral price due to the partnership with the ultra-Orthodox. Going in, with a commitment not to get out until November 2006, is simply a political party committing suicide. How can you enter with any agreement on far-reaching changes, for instance in economic policy? How can we commit to two years up front, when we don't know how Sharon will behave when a doorway to negotiations with the Palestinians opens up? Why should we booby-trap ourselves?"

Many Laborites share Shochat's opinion. Why give Sharon carte blanche until November 2006, they're wondering, when it is possible that all he really wants is to leave Gaza and nothing more, as his adviser and close aide Dov Weisglass revealed? And in any event, the Labor insiders are saying, whatever Peres is saying will not hold water. As soon as a new party leader is elected, the countdown will begin, and the elections will be held before November 2006.

Lapid, watch out

Shinui chairman Tommy Lapid is preparing to walk in the shoes of Shimon Peres, as head of the parliamentary opposition, immediately after Peres is appointed to the Sharon cabinet. But he would do well to review the Basic Law on The Knesset. According to the law, the head of the opposition will belong to the largest party in the opposition (which will indeed be Shinui, if Labor enters the government), "unless" - the relevant section states - "more than half of the members of Knesset from the opposition factions have informed the speaker of the Knesset in writing at any time of their choice of another member of Knesset among them."

Watch out, Tommy. If Shas doesn't join the government, Eli Yishai will have a good chance of becoming the head of opposition, a position that he has been eyeing with great interest. Yishai needs the votes of 28 MKs (assuming the coalition will number 66 MKs): 11 members of Shas, six members of the National Union (without Michael Nudelman), six members of the National Religious Party. All told, 23 MKs. He can get five more MKs from the following mixed bag: the Arab MKs, who do not necessarily see Lapid as their representative, and the two One Nation MKs, Amir Peretz and Ilana Cohen, who have declared that they will not consider themselves part of a coalition in which Benjamin Netanyahu serves as minister of finance. Who knows? Perhaps there are those in Meretz-Yahad who would be prepared to back Yishai, given their loathing for Lapid. Yishai already found out everything he needs to know at the Knesset speaker's office last week.