Sharon may have the last laugh in Likud showdown

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu's game of one-upmanship against Ariel Sharon has backfired. Netanyahu thought he would ease his way back into the prime minister's seat when he pushed Likud Party leaders to vote against the future creation of a Palestinian state Sunday.

But the public saw things differently.

Sharon, who opposed the vote, is now being viewed as a moderate. Netanyahu, who wants his old job back, is seen as a right-wing opportunist.

The fact that the policy-making body of the prime minister's own party turned against him has only shored up Sharon's credentials among the general Israeli public as a centrist and a responsible national leader.

Internationally, too, Sharon's strong statements repudiating the Central Committee vote reassured world leaders he would not spurn slight recent openings toward peace; it painted him as a statesman able to rise above petty domestic politics.

Sharon's troubles in his party began in September when he declared that, unlike the Turks, British and Jordanians, Israel was prepared to allow the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.

That set off alarm bells in the Likud, where the idea of Palestinian statehood has long been anathema.

Prompted by Netanyahu, some party activists decided to bring Sharon's deviation from the party line to a vote.

Sharon tried to defer the vote against Palestinian statehood but he was soundly defeated. Still, commentators lauded his courage in presenting the motion despite the certainty of a humiliating defeat.

Sharon made clear to the committee that he was not prepared to rule anything out at this juncture, and he wanted to keep his diplomatic options open.

"I was elected to bring security and peace," he thundered, "and that is what I intend to do."

Even after the voting, Sharon stressed that he had no intention of allowing the Central Committee decision to bind him in any way. He would act, he said, as he had always done — according to his understanding of Israel's national interest.

Sharon also told Secretary of State Colin Powell that he would not allow party machinations to deflect him from his search for peace with the Palestinians.

Glowing media reports the next day said Sharon had come across as a national leader, ready to take a political beating within his party rather than compromise the national interest.

Netanyahu, on the contrary, was widely depicted as acting more as a politician than a statesman who is willing to undermine Israel's international standing for the sake of petty political gain.

Worse, by opposing Palestinian statehood so vehemently, Netanyahu may have painted himself into a far right-wing corner, which will make it difficult for him to win support from the center if he runs again as a candidate for prime minister.

Indeed, the vote might even hurt Netanyahu's chances of winning the Likud nomination: The party leader and prime ministerial candidate is elected by the full Likud membership, currently estimated at about 150,000, not by the more militant 2,600-member Central Committee.

As columnist Nahum Barnea put it in Yediot Achronot: "Netanyahu has placed himself so far to the right that soon they'll be comparing Sharon to [French president Jacques] Chirac and Netanyahu to [right-wing challenger Jean] Le Pen."

Netanyahu supporters, however, argue that it was their man who was going out on a limb for the national interest. They contend that a Palestinian state would be a mortal danger to Israel because statehood entails control of airspace, borders, armed forces and water.

Even if limits are imposed in those areas by treaty, Israel could hardly guarantee that the Palestinians would observe the restrictions.

Netanyahu says he suspects Sharon intends to go to a proposed Middle East peace conference this summer with a plan for early Palestinian statehood, based on a formula devised by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority official Ahmed Karia.

"Whatever talks have been going on with the Palestinians behind the scenes will now come up against a very strong barrier," warned legislator Yisrael Katz, a key Netanyahu supporter.

Netanyahu backers depict the Central Committee vote as the beginning of the end for Sharon. They predict a snowball effect as allegiances shift to the man perceived as the stronger candidate.

Internal party polls show Netanyahu 15 to 25 percent ahead of Sharon among the full Likud membership, they say.

But independent polls say otherwise. A recent Ma'ariv poll showed Sharon leading Netanyahu by 44 percent to 35 percent among right-wing voters, and a poll in Yediot Achronot showed Sharon even further ahead in the Likud, by 54 percent to 35 percent.

A few months ago, it was a foregone conclusion among Israeli pundits that Netanyahu would supplant Sharon as Likud leader sometime before the next national election in October 2003. That's no longer the case today.

Ironically, the new faith in Sharon, which started with Israel's invasion of the West Bank in late March in response to Palestinian terror attacks, gained further momentum through public perceptions of what happened in the Likud Central Committee.

Ultimately, though, Sharon's grip on power depends on two factors largely outside his control — the Labor Party's continued support for the national unity coalition and the level of Palestinian terror.

If terror returns to Israel's streets, voters may look further to the right. But if a peace process is launched and Sharon follows through, he probably will retain the broad-based popular support he enjoys today.

Matters could come to a head at next month's Labor Party convention.

There the party will have to decide whether Sharon is moving quickly and seriously enough in the direction of viable Palestinian statehood — which Labor, the left and virtually the entire international community see as the only long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.