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NEWS ANALYSIS Sharon thought to be preparing the way for Netanyahu’s return

JERUSALEM, June 15 (JTA) — Outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon has won the first round in the three-way battle for the leadership of the Likud Party. But some observers are saying that Sharon, far from preparing to run for the premiership when the nation’s next elections are held, is busy clearing a path for the man who led Likud when it was battered at the polls last month — outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon won a procedural vote Monday night, when the Likud Party’s Central Committee agreed to elect a new leader in September and wait two years before selecting a candidate for prime minister. After the vote was taken, Ehud Olmert’s face said it all. The mayor of Jerusalem’s smile, painfully artificial as he stood in a three-way handshake with his two rivals for the leadership of Likud, made it clear he had lost the first skirmish in this battle. Sharon, Likud’s interim leader since Netanyahu stepped down after the May 17 elections, was far more confident as he took part in the handshake. Outgoing Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit, the third candidate for the party leadership, was also smiling, though observers feel he will not have much to be happy about when the party’s primary is held in September. His candidacy is seen as strategic rather than realistic. The Likud Central Committee, an unwieldy body of 2,700 members, can and often does provide noisy and dramatic backdrops for personal struggles between party officials. This time, however, apparently still shell-shocked by the extent of the Likud’s defeat in last month’s elections, only a few hundred stalwarts turned out. They participated in Olmert’s drubbing at the hands of the wily and veteran Sharon with only mild interest. Dozens of party activists who had turned up at the Tel Aviv convention hall to boo and heckle Olmert for his perceived betrayal of Netanyahu during the election campaign were kept out by security officials. In the run-up to Monday’s vote, Olmert and Sheetrit had demanded that the September primary determine the party’s leader for a full four-year term — in other words, that the person selected lead Likud into the next election. Sharon, backed by most of the outgoing Cabinet, insisted on a two-year term designed “to reconstruct” the shattered party. After that, there would be a second primary to determine who would be Likud’s next candidate for prime minister. Olmert and Sheetrit had called for a secret ballot, but that was voted down. In an open vote, they knew, their prospects were bleak: Committee members would be reluctant to vote against Sharon, who may yet — though this now seems unlikely — dispense ministerships and other top jobs in a unity government led by Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak. At the last minute, Olmert and Sheetrit backed off their motion for a single primary and accepted Sharon’s proposal without a vote. Olmert later said that if he won the September primary, he would move to reverse the two-year limitation. Political pundits say he may well be able to do so — which would render Monday night’s proceedings irrelevant. But for the moment, at any rate, Olmert was visibly crestfallen, having been beaten — on live, prime-time television — by Sharon. Olmert, already campaigning energetically for the party leadership, claims that if he wins, most or all of the senior figures who left the party under Netanyahu’s leadership will return. Indeed, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who refused to back Likud in the election and has announced his support for Olmert, would certainly return to the party’s ranks if the Jerusalem mayor wins. Olmert believes his close personal friends, Dan Meridor and Roni Milo, now in the Center Party, would also come back to Likud, along with Centrist leader Yitzhak Mordechai and possibly even former Foreign Minister David Levy. But Olmert is up against a solid body of Likud opinion that blames him for Netanyahu’s election defeat. After all, Barak’s One Israel bloc repeatedly aired a speech by Olmert asserting that Barak, as premier, would not divide Jerusalem — when Netanyahu’s campaign clearly wanted to imply that he would. Olmert’s defense — that he only wanted to keep Jerusalem out of the campaign — is seen as a cop-out. But it goes deeper than campaign propaganda. The Jerusalem mayor made little effort to conceal his contempt for Netanyahu as his tenure in the premiership wore on. Olmert actively considered running against Netanyahu in the pre-election Likud primaries, and later took little part in the campaign for Netanyahu’s re-election. But is Sharon, now into his 70s, a serious contender for the prime ministership in an election that could be four years away? This question is providing — and doubtless will continue to provide — tension and fascination for Likud loyalists and outside pundits alike. Perhaps — and the possibility seems less fantastic with each passing day — Sharon is acting on behalf of none other than Netanyahu himself. Perhaps the defeated prime minister, who announced within minutes of last month’s exit poll results that he was quitting politics, is in fact planning his comeback. Netanyahu has made it clear in recent days that his retirement is intended as a time-out rather than as a final hanging-up of his political gloves. If Barak manages to hold onto the prime ministership for two full terms, Netanyahu has reportedly been heard to muse that he will be 57 when Barak finally gives up the premiership — precisely the same age that Barak is now. Netanyahu and a body of Likud grass-roots supporters that seems to be growing — or at least growing more vociferous — now stress that even in his departure speech on election night, he said he “still has much to give” the country — and, implicitly, the party. He said at the time that he wanted to spend time with his family, not that he was going into political oblivion forever. Sharon, observers recall, was one of the very few top Likud officials who stuck close to the premier throughout the election campaign, without leaking critical comments to journalists and without seeking to distance himself from Netanyahu’s doomed candidacy. Sharon’s two-year leadership bid would seem to dovetail perfectly into a Netanyahu comeback strategy. In two years’ time, the memory of his defeat dulled and the edge of his conflicts with other Likud figures blunted, Netanyahu could well hope to work his old magic again — on television screens and on Likud Party platforms. “Why theorize now?” the always-wary veteran Likud legislator Reuven Rivlin replied Tuesday when asked about the Netanyahu comeback scenario. But why not? The Likud, apparently destined for a term in the opposition, has plenty of time to do just that.