Sharon conquers Likud rebels as Palestinian election looms

jerusalem | After he had a string of embarrassing defeats in his own party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s victory in the election of key Likud officers raises the chances that he will be able to broaden his government and push through a promised withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — though it’s still not certain.

Likud rebels, who have been at the forefront of the campaign against Sharon’s “disengagement” plan, put up candidates for three top party posts. Had they won, Sharon’s political future would have been bleak.

“The message of such a victory will be that Sharon is finished,” pundit Yossi Verter wrote in Ha’aretz ahead of the Monday, Nov. 22, vote. “It would be very difficult for Sharon to lead the Likud again in the next Knesset elections.”

Instead, the victory of three people who aren’t diehard Sharon loyalists but are figures the prime minister feels he can work with, improves the prospects for progress just as the United States and Europe prepare for a reinvigorated peace push.

The vote came as outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the region to see whether new chances for peace have opened in the wake of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s death, and what the United States can do to facilitate elections for a new Palestinian leader.

Powell hinted that if the Palestinians make real efforts to stop terrorism, the United States would be ready to contribute $20 million toward Palestinian elections.

Sharon told Powell in Jerusalem on Nov. 22 that Israel would do all it could to facilitate the Palestinian electoral process. He said Israel was ready for security coordination with the Palestinians in the run-up to the elections. Israel, he said, also would allow Arabs from eastern Jerusalem to vote and full freedom of movement in the Palestinian territories on election day.

After talks later with the new Palestinian leaders in Jericho, Powell said he had the impression that they were “committed to reform,” suggesting that he expected them to take steps, such as fighting terror, to get peace talks with Israel back on track.

Clearly, the Americans want to exploit any chance there is to kick-start the deadlocked process, and Powell sounded an upbeat note after his talks in Jerusalem and Jericho. He spoke of a “new attitude on the Palestinian side” and “flexibility in Israel,” and said, “There is enough for us to move forward now.”

The Israelis also are upbeat. A senior Israeli intelligence source told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that with the new Palestinian leadership there is a good chance for a “total change in Palestinian political culture.”

If so, Likud’s vote improves the chance that they will find an Israeli coalition able to break the diplomatic deadlock.

The rebel candidates — Uzi Landau for the key Central Committee chairmanship, Michael Ratzon for the secretariat and Gilad Erdan for the bureau — were comfortably beaten by, respectively, former Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and Health Minister Danny Naveh.

The results show that the rebels do not control the 2,970-member Central Committee, the Likud’s highest decision-making body, when there is full turnout.

The prime minister’s losses in the party began in May 2002, when the Central Committee defied him and put the party on record against the establishment of a Palestinian state. In May, Sharon was defeated in a full party membership vote on his disengagement plan, with Landau, Ratzon and Erdan leading the campaign against him.

Then, in August, the Central Committee defied Sharon again, voting against bringing in Labor to bolster Sharon’s shaky government.

The successive defeats heightened perceptions of the prime minister’s vulnerability inside the party. In the Knesset, a growing number of Likud legislators came out against his disengagement plan.

The question now is whether Sharon will be able to bring Labor into his coalition and create a firm political base to carry out the promised withdrawals.

If he had been elected Central Committee chairman, Landau would have done all he could to torpedo the disengagement plan, including keeping Labor out. Hanegbi, however, seemed to open a crack for Labor to come through after the vote.

Labor wouldn’t be able to join the coalition without other parties such as Shas or United Torah Judaism, he said. In other words, if Sharon can persuade either of the two fervently religious parties to join his coalition, he would be able to bring Labor in as well.

What Hanegbi and many in the Central Committee oppose is a Likud-Labor-Shinui government, in which the Likud likely would be bullied into more dovish positions by the two more moderate secular parties. But a coalition in which Likud and at least one right-wing, fervently religious party force Shinui out and dominate Labor is a different proposition.

In Labor, there now is a strong drive to join Sharon’s coalition — partly to help him carry out the disengagement and partly to block former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s bid to recapture the Labor leadership.

Matan Vilnai, one of Barak’s chief rivals for the top spot, is proposing that Labor agree to join Sharon’s government without taking any ministerial posts. That would achieve two purposes: Carrying out the disengagement and putting off Labor primaries for another year, forcing Barak to cool his heels.

Over the next few weeks, Sharon will make a supreme effort to widen his coalition, with Labor and the fervently religious as his main targets, even though success almost surely would mean the departure of Shinui, his main coalition partner until now.

If Sharon is able to cut a deal, the Central Committee under Hanegbi will be asked to approve it, despite its earlier vote against a unity government with Labor. And if a new vote goes Sharon’s way, the latest victory will have been extremely significant for Sharon — and for disengagement.

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.