Sharon's Cheerleading Squad

The Israeli peace camp is missing out on the rare political opportunity to gain from the Likud crisis.

Ariel Sharon, who didn't want Hamas in the political process in the territories, is now getting Hamas in the political process in Israel. While this is not the first time Palestinian terror is participating in Israeli politics, this time Sharon is finding himself on the wrong side of the political divide. Now it is Benjamin Netanyahu's turn to dance around the fire, while Sharon has to explain to his voters why he gave the entire Gaza Strip to the Palestinians and received violence in return. Netanyahu, and even Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, gave the Palestinians a lot less than this when Sharon was accusing them of capitulating to Hamas terror.

It is doubtful whether Netanyahu would have reacted differently to the firing of rockets against an Israeli settlement. Based on his reconciliation session with Yasser Arafat following the fatal Western Wall tunnel riots in September 1996, it could be that he would have acted with greater restraint. The ideological differences between the two rivals are miniscule. Both have learned the hard way the limits of military force, but neither has a diplomatic solution to the continued crisis between Israel and the Palestinians.

Both support separation fences, a 21st-century steel wall, and disregard the demographic steel wall that threatens the Jewish, moral and democratic nature of the State of Israel. Both are committed to reinforcing settlements in the West Bank, and both oppose talks on Jerusalem or the resolution of the refugee problem. Both reveal the same (lack of) interest in strengthening the Palestinian Authority against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the authority's victory in the extremely important elections to the legislative council. Both are partners in shaping a socioeconomic policy that has widened the gap between rich and poor, between the sated and the hungry.

Declarations aside, there is no evidence that if Sharon were to gain the trust of the Likud Central Committee he would uphold the government's commitment to implement the road map more than Netanyahu; he has said that the Gaza withdrawal is solely an Israeli interest, a unilateral move with no connection to any diplomatic process.

The Talia Sasson report is collecting dust in his office at a time that settlement outposts are prospering. He considers Abu Mazen his sole partner in talks on the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, to be a partner only when Hamas is attacking and he needs a scapegoat. Who knows, perhaps "Mr. if they give, they will get; if they don't give, they won't get" will try his luck in making a deal with the man on whom Sharon forced Arafat's non-partner legacy.

The Israeli left is also angry at the Palestinians for having "missed an opportunity to receive a state" and for "playing into Netanyahu's hands." The Labor Party has forgotten that it joined the government only to guarantee realization of the disengagement. Shimon Peres wasn't even able to pry loose from Sharon the Palestinian Authority's control of the border crossings into and out of the Gaza Strip - the only accomplishment Abu Mazen was able to secure. The party's cabinet ministers have gone back to playing the part of Sharon's dust rags, and have in short order managed to be a party to bombings, targeted assassinations, arrests, roadblocks and closures.

Maybe it is the hope that Sharon has changed, or maybe the feeling that Netanyahu has not, that is coloring the vote in the Likud Central Committee as a struggle between doves and hawks. Or perhaps it is the oblivion of the Zionist center that has made Sharon its only default choice. Whichever one it is, the turmoil down south and the rising tensions in the West Bank are cutting the conflict between Sharon and Netanyahu down to its proper proportions - an internal power struggle in a right-wing party eaten by corruption.

The party that is missing out on the rare political opportunity to gain from the Likud crisis is the Israeli peace camp. In place of proposing an alternative diplomatic, economic and social agenda and different moral criteria, it is turning into Sharon's cheerleading squad at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, where the central committee is convening.