Divided They'll Fall

"Sharon and Netanyahu must go into the next election together," says Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. "They could agree to go in together as number one or two with a rotation in the middle of Sharon's coming term, or in any other way that they see fit."

"Sharon and Netanyahu must go into the next election together," says Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. "They could agree to go in together as number one or two with a rotation in the middle of Sharon's coming term, or in any other way that they see fit. The main thing is for them to go in together. That will preserve the Likud movement's unity, and prevent fragmentation and division. Both support disengagement, don't they?"

Rivlin's proposal is being heard with increasing frequency among Likud factions. It will astound neither Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on vacation at his Sycamore Ranch, nor Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on vacation in his Caesaria villa. Both are aware of its existence.

Rivlin says that what frightens him more than the dangers inherent in a disengagement from Gaza, are the dangers of a split in the Likud. "Therefore," he suggests, "unity must be achieved in the Likud, at any price. The Likud must redefine its path before it goes to elections. It will be worse if the Likud goes to elections in the midst of internal strife. The only one who can challenge Sharon's leadership and split the Likud is Netanyahu. Both men understand that. So, they must reach an understanding - not love. That will never exist between those two. Even a meeting with just the two of them won't help. In this case, the eyes see, the mouths speak, but the ears don't believe.

"In their case," continues Rivlin, "They need a third party. They need Ne'eman [a loyal comrade, a public trustee, and the name of the attorney in question] - in every sense of the word." Rivlin, who has a close relationship with Netanyahu and a more distant but more emotional tie to Sharon, met with attorney Ya'akov Ne'eman to tell him that someone has to do something about those two.

Of course, Netanyahu's office has been aware of the idea for several weeks, and so has Sharon's. However, both offices refused to elaborate as long as the big bosses are on vacation. Off the record, Netanyahu supporters did say that if there is a formal proposal, Netanyahu would not reject it unilaterally. Off the record, Sharon supporters also said he would consider such a proposal in a positive light. As a matter of fact, no one promises Sharon that he would prevail over Netanyahu on the eve of coming elections. Even if he does prevail, who is to say that Sharon would survive more than two years in the government?

On the other hand, Netanyahu is the one who was burned in primaries with the prime minister less than two years ago. Joint candidacy, a new decision-making process, and a united base against political rivals like Silvan Shalom and Uzi Landau on one side, and Ehud Olmert and Shaul Mofaz on the other, might appear to be a win-win situation for both.

The only remaining problem is one of faith. Can Netanyahu trust Sharon to keep his end of the deal? A senior Likud official identified with Sharon answers, "There's actually no problem here, and we don't even require Ne'eman's services. The minute that Sharon and Netanyahu go to Likud primaries together, as chairman and deputy-chairman of the party, following a public statement and mutual obligations - two years from the day that the government is established, Netanyahu will receive control of the government. There is no power in the Likud, not even Shalom or Landau, that would be able to prevent it. Registered Likud voters will have their say, and no one will be able to reverse it. If an amendment is necessary in the Likud's constitution, it will be easily accomplished the minute that Netanyahu and Sharon, and obviously also most of the MKs and ministers, support it."

"The minute those two go together - that's power," Rivlin says, "Anyone who schemes around will pay the price. Even me." Rivlin raised the idea recently with Sharon and Netanyahu. He refuses, however, to divulge their reaction.

Two days before the Likud convention, Netanyahu tried to present a compromise that would prevent the conflict. Netanyahu strived not only to prevent a war between Sharon and the prime minister's opponents, but mainly to avoid the trap set for Netanyahu himself: If he spoke in favor of Sharon, he would take a hard blow from the right, in the Likud and in general. If he spoke against, along with David Levy and Uzi Landau, he would look like the old Bibi, the warrior, the extremist, and could pay a price with the moderate right-wing and with centrist voters. The difference between these two groups is no longer visible. Even the option of silence, which he finally chose, came with a price. A silent leader is not exactly a leader.

Bibi's compromise

This is why Netanyahu drafted a three-pronged proposal on the eve of the convention:

1. The plenum calls on the prime minister to act in any way necessary to preserve the unity of the Likud led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

2. The prime minister will engage in negotiations to form a coalition according to his own judgment. After the completed coalition agreement is formulated, the agreement will be brought before the plenum for approval before any signature which obligates both sides.

3. The plenum will convene to approve the agreement within 48 hours of being called upon by the prime minister.

Netanyahu considered this proposal to be the solution to all of his problems:

I. It does not pose any challenge to the prime minister nor does it tie the prime minister's hands. Sharon is licensed to engage in negotiations with anyone he chooses, including Labor.

II. It preserves Likud unity.

III. It does not disqualify any party unilaterally.

IV. It might placate Silvan Shalom, as it grants veto power to the plenum on all matters, including appointments.

Netanyahu concluded that the only remaining problem was Sharon. The prime minister might consider a proposal of this sort to be nothing less than surrender. Almost unconditional. The chance that the Likud convention would approve a coalition with Labor at the Mann Auditorium on Wednesday night seemed insignificant. Sharon might even think Bibi was laying a trap for him. Sharon would lead negotiations and bring the agreement to the convention for approval only to find his heir, Netanyahu, waiting to lead the opposition upon the prime minister's demise.

However, Sharon never saw Netanyahu's proposal. It was never placed on the prime minister's desk, because it was first rejected by opposition leaders, who forecast prevailing winds at the convention and knew that victory was at hand. Netanyahu shelved the proposal, which appears here for the first time.

The proposal has an element of irony: Until 1993, the Likud constitution required party leaders to present coalition agreements to the Likud Central Committee for approval. In 1993, the constitution was changed, and the authority to approve coalition agreements was transferred to the new party chairman who was unwilling to be restrained by a party body. The name of that chairman was Benjamin Netanyahu.

The `Tegar' letter

Those searching for the authentic, profound reason for Sharon's stinging, humiliating defeat in the Likud convention might find it in the main points of a letter published here. This is a letter by leaders of the "Tegar" challenge group, a group of Likud founders sent to meet with Sharon on August 8, 10 days before the Likud plenum convened. The Tegar group includes the most senior, rooted, and extreme members of the Likud. As far as they are concerned, nothing has changed since the state was established. The Mapai is still the Mapai. The Irgun is still the Irgun, and the Jordan River still has two banks. This bank is ours, and so is that one. Anyone who questions this conclusion is subject to the same verdict.

"Ministers, MKs, and others are speechless," write Tegar leaders Eli Sheetrit and attorney Shmuel (Sami) Samuel to Sharon. "They tremble before your mighty hand, the style of threats and grandiose conquest that you deploy. You listen to no one. You coerce and dismiss, act like master of the Likud household and the nation, and do anything you like ..." In another part of the letter they scold Sharon, "You will not be the one to brand a senior, ideological, nationalist movement with leftist, Peace Now labels ... You joined this party."

"As it is now clear," write Sheetrit and Samuel to Sharon, "with the wisdom of hindsight, all of your deeds were planned in advance. You ruined the Likud and its institutions in order to do with the party what you will - without inhibition. You ignore the convention membership and dismiss all its decisions. As far as you are concerned, they do not exist. You promised, before all and sundry in a Central Committee meeting, to honor and implement the results of the Likud referendum. Your promise did not last three days. You promised peace and security. Where are they?

"Gather up your courage," the two writers close. "Stand up and resign from the chairmanship of the Likud and from the government. Only in this way will you prevent an inconceivable catastrophe from befalling the People of Israel and the settlers of Gush Katif. If you do not return to your senses and reverse your decision to uproot Jews, the chief justice of Jewish history will condemn you to eternal damnation."

"We wrote this letter in plain speech, so that even the common citizen would understand," Samuel said yesterday, despite the fact that the letter was sent to a select few due to budget constraints. No. Samuel does not view the letter as being extraordinarily harsh. They sent Sharon a similar letter several months ago. The writers even received confirmation from the Prime Minister's Office that their letter arrived.