Sharon prevails but Bibi preps for a future challenge

jerusalem (jta) | Ariel Sharon beat back the most immediate challenge in his Likud Party, but a possible split in the ruling party still looms large.

Two opposing factions, led by the Israeli prime minister and his main rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remain bitterly divided over major policy issues.

The key party vote Monday, Sept. 26, merely postponed the showdown for a few months. By a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, the Likud’s Central Committee rejected a motion to bring leadership primaries forward to November, meaning that Netanyahu’s bid for Likud leadership has been postponed to April or May.

“Round one in the battle over Likud ideology is over; round two is still ahead of us,” Netanyahu declared after the results were announced.

Had he lost the vote, Sharon might have left Likud to form a new centrist party without Netanyahu’s more hawkish faction. Though he denies any such intention, many pundits believe Sharon may eventually do so.

Given the deep ideological differences and the bitter personal animosities between Likud’s two camps, it’s hard to see how the party can remain united.

At the center of the ideological divide is Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Sharon believes the recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has created conditions for a major breakthrough. Netanyahu maintains that Gaza will turn into a terrorist base and that future moves regarding the Palestinians should be made only on the basis of strict reciprocity, and not in terms of unilateral Israeli concessions.

Dozens of missiles fired from Gaza at Israeli towns over the weekend put the opposing visions to the test. The missile attacks by Hamas seemed to vindicate Netanyahu, and polls taken the day before the Central Committee vote showed him leading by between 9 percent and 12 percent.

But Israel’s sharp military response to the rockets, which silenced the Palestinian guns, helped Sharon redress the balance.

Most pundits agree that Sharon’s victory is only temporary. Writing in Yediot Achronot, political analyst Sima Kadmon argued that Sharon “has been given a reprieve during which he will be able to decide what to do next.

“He has regained the ability to make choices according to a timetable that suits him. It doesn’t mean he’s staying in the Likud,” Kadmon wrote.

Many believe Sharon won’t wait around that long. He knows that even if he wins the primary and retains the premiership as Likud leader, he’ll be faced with a Likud Knesset faction even more oppositional than the present one, making it difficult for him to govern.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert contends that the party rifts are too deep to be papered over. In his view, the fundamental problem is that the fault line in the Israeli political divide runs directly through the Likud. That likely will lead to a significant realignment of political forces in Israel, including a split in Likud, he believes.

“If the positive process set in train by Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza gathers momentum, then naturally the makeup of the political forces will have to be adjusted to meet the changing reality,” Olmert said. “And there will have to be a degree of compatibility between the positions taken by political leaders and the political forces they represent.”

For the moment, Sharon seems to have been vindicated. But coming months will give a clearer idea as to who was right about Gaza, Sharon or Netanyahu, and whether they run against each other in the Likud or as the respective heads of two opposing political parties.