The Dwindling Sands in Sharon's Hourglass

It wasn't until Friday morning that Ariel Sharon and his aides internalized the full significance - and, to their mind, worrisome nature - of the upheaval that rocked the Labor Party world the previous day. The polls that appeared in Haaretz and Maariv indicated a strengthening of Labor. That was predictable. But what astounded Sharon and his advisers was the nearly absolute turnout of media support for Amir Peretz. They realized that the end of an era had begun. The media's support for the prime minister was no longer assured.

Consequently, it was decided to postpone the meeting between Peretz and Sharon from today to Thursday. The deferment is meant to achieve three goals: to prove who's in charge here; to ensure survival during the next parliamentary week, during which a proposal to dissolve the Knesset is due to be voted upon; and to gain some time to consult and conduct a series of quickie polls among the public and Likud members, in advance of making the decision that cannot be postponed: to run in the Likud or in a new political party. And to figure out who will benefit by elections now - Peretz or Sharon.

This is no easy dilemma. Peretz wants elections asap, to take advantage of his momentum and abbreviate the wear-and-tear period awaiting him in Labor, a party that is accustomed to eating its leaders whole. But if that is the case, Sharon - as if in a mirror image - has to try for a later date. Until the election, he and his finance minister, Ehud Olmert, can cozy up to the public. There are surpluses in the budget, and this is the time to spread a little money around to improve the situation and pull the social rug out from under Peretz's feet.

On the other hand, Sharon is also pretty popular. Even now, at the height of the euphoria around Peretz, the Likud under Sharon's leadership has not been hurt. So far, the attempt by Peretz to blame Sharon for the state of social distress has failed. So it may be that Sharon should also prefer that the election be held as soon as possible. He and his aides are now weighing these considerations. It is their sole topic of discussion. Everything hinges on one decision: Will Sharon remain in the Likud, or withdraw in favor of a new party. And if a new party, who will he take with him? Obviously, he wants the moderate Likud ministers - Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Meir Sheetrit, Avraham Hirchson, Gideon Ezra and as many MKs as possible (for the sake of party financing and broadcast minutes in the campaign) and a few new faces, like Avi Dichter.

Would he invite the Labor losers to join the party? Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon, Dalia Itzik and maybe Matan Vilnai, too? These are the names that have been the topic of conversation. All of this is now being explored in the polls commissioned by Sharon.

If Sharon opts to stay in the Likud, he will have double the campaign broadcast airtime of Peretz (a function of his party's 40 Knesset seats, as opposed to Labor's 21) and many more "financing units." On top of all this, he would be the prime minister, who controls the political agenda. The Likud would place at his disposal a strong infrastructure of activists and volunteers that proved itself in 2001 and in 2003. He would only have to overcome one hurdle - Netanyahu - on his way to entering the next Knesset with enough seats to give him the premiership for one more, final term in office.

The people around Sharon are inclined to stay in the Likud. His closest and most influential political adviser, his son Omri, is recommending that he do so. This opinion is also shared by well-connected cabinet ministers like Tzachi Hanegbi and Silvan Shalom. Sharon has not sought the advice of either lately. Meanwhile, they express their opinions in the media and at closed gatherings, aware that what they say is swiftly conveyed to the Prime Minister's Bureau.

A few days ago, the foreign minister said at a gathering of party activists in the north that Sharon would be making a mistake if he left the party. "Sharon has to know that Likud is the brand-name," Shalom said, "and in my opinion, he's the first to recognize that fact. Sometimes there are people that enter politics, make great strides, begin to develop an inflated ego and start to believe that they themselves are the brand-name.

He should not be confused. Yes, Sharon brought 38 seats in the last election, and yes, only he would have been able to bring in these seats, but if he had run on the Meretz platform, he wouldn't have achieved what he did. The combination between Arik Sharon and the Likud brand is the only winning formula."

Shalom responded dismissively to the "contrary list" that is meant to make life hellish for Sharon in the next Knesset. "All of the ministers will be elected," he said, "and some of the deputy ministers will also be elected. These people are not `contrary' to the prime minister. From the 26th place on down, new MKs, from various geographical regions, would be elected. They are not hostile to Sharon, either, and they certainly won't want to shorten the length of their term. Meaning that that demon isn't so awful."

The campaign that wasn't

The election of Amir Peretz obliterated Labor's interim generation. If Peretz flunks the election test and members of the party replace him, his replacement would be a young person: Ophir Pines-Paz, Isaac Herzog, maybe Ami Ayalon, who may not be chronologically young, but is new to politics. Perhaps Pines-Paz should have run against Peretz and Peres now. He might have done surprisingly well. But he is afraid. I am too young and inexperienced, he said. Modesty and humility are nice qualities, but they don't get you very far in politics.

Maybe Pines-Paz understands this. Yesterday, in a radio interview, he contradicted the position of the new party chairman with respect to how the Labor faction will vote this Wednesday on the bill to dissolve the Knesset. Peretz had threatened that Labor would vote yes if Sharon did not meet with him beforehand. Pines-Paz said that there was no reason to vote in favor. Shalom Simhon also sounded a bit peeved by Peretz's haste. "You have to remember that there is a state, too," said Simhon.

This is how it begins.

Peretz has not yet decided how to deal with members of the Knesset faction and other party higher-ups that did not back him. If it were up to him, he would replace them with people like Ayalon, Ben-Gurion University president Avishay Braverman and businessman Benny Gaon. But he knows that Pines-Paz and Herzog and Simhon are now the young and well-liked faces of his party. He will need them. So he prefers to forge an alliance with them. He is also interested in gaining the support of Benjamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer, who did surprisingly well in the primaries and who brings him an organizational infrastructure and a large support base in the party's central committee.

There is a small and tightly woven group around Peretz, comprising loyal confidants and supporters. This group includes his brother-in-law, Sammy Sasson, mayor of Mitzpeh Ramon. Shimon Cohen, director general of Mishan, is another close associate. Also on the list are Ofer Eini, Peretz's candidate for Histadrut chairman; Rachel Turjeman, head of the Histadrut subsidiary Haverim Umarvichim; Haim Zweig, chairman of the Merhavim division of the Histadrut; Shmulik Cohen, head of the Histadrut's information division, Knesset members Yuli Tamir and Ilana Cohen; and Peretz's strategic advisers Uzi Baram, Motti Morel and Ronen Zur.

Peretz's closest adviser just might be his wife, Ahlama. In the past few days, before and after the primaries, she has been interviewed dozens of times. She does not sidestep any questions, political or otherwise. Every so often, when asked about his intentions, she responds in the plural. Ahlama, it seems, intends to be closely involved.

About one hour before Ariel Sharon's request to approve the appointments of the cabinet ministers was turned down by the Knesset last Monday, one of the prime minister's advisers passed a note to the Knesset speaker, Reuven Rivlin. "The honorable speaker of the Knesset," read the note. "Immediately upon the completion of the vote count, and after you announce its outcome, the prime minister requests that you make an announcement to the Knesset (for your information, regarding the confirmation today of the finance minister, following a brief cabinet meeting)."

The trick that wasn't

Clear, brief, purposeful words that need no explanation. But the writer nevertheless saw fit to sharpen the message. "I would be grateful to you," he added, "if you would pay attention to the prime minister raising his hand and asking for your permission to speak."

This addendum is interesting. It conceals an air of urgency. Perhaps even of alarm. It raises three possibilities: Either the writer felt that Rivlin doesn't catch on quickly, and therefore it was worth repeating the request a second time; or he thought that Rivlin might have problems with his eyes; or he feared that Rivlin might play a trick on Sharon by ignoring his raised hand, closing the session and leaving the state without a finance minister, with a confused economy, a plummeting stock exchange, and worst of all, with a reckless prime minister through whose childish and whimsical stubbornness the state would be dragged into absolute chaos.

In Sharon's view, such a scenario was not in the cards. As early as last Thursday, at a session of the "ranch forum," it was decided to introduce Ehud Olmert's appointment as finance minister immediately after the appointments of Ze'ev Boim and Roni Bar-On were brought down by the so-called "rebels." It was obvious to Sharon that this would be the result, but he played the game through to the end.

He let Boim and Bar-On run around like bats with their wings clipped in the Knesset, in an attempt to "enlist a majority" that never existed, while he and his people stood to the side and made noises as if they actually cared.

Sharon did not for a moment consider compromising with the rebels or withdrawing the vote. That is not his leadership style.

He wanted a showdown, partly to show that he does not abandon friends who lay down on the fence for him, but even more, he wanted to hold the rebels to their word and force them to vote against their fellow faction members, thus revealing their small-mindedness to all.

He needed this pretext in order to prepare the background for the option of his withdrawal from the Likud and the establishment of a new party or the scheduling of early elections, on the grounds that he cannot work with a contrary Knesset. If that meant that Ze'evik and Roni would end up paying the price, so be it. He could live with it.

After the vote, Sharon assured them that they would be cabinet ministers this term, but this is no easy feat. The law states that ministers may be appointed without Knesset approval only in a transitional government. In other words, in a government that has resigned. However, a legal scholar who looked into the matter contends that a transitional government can exist only when the prime minister goes to the president and asks him to dissolve the Knesset.

This is not the scenario at hand: The Knesset will clearly be dissolved in the near future, but this would be the outcome of negotiations between Sharon and Peretz, and the passage of a law to break up the Knesset. In this scenario, claims the expert, Sharon could not appoint Bar-On and Boim to the cabinet. This pledge must, then, be filed under "promissory note written on ice, placed in the refrigerator in the neighbor's house during a blackout," as Ehud Barak termed Peres' recent promise to appoint Matan Vilnai defense minister in a future Peres government.