JERUSALEM, Oct. 8 (JTA) — Ariel Sharon may still be the most popular politician in Israel, having proven himself remarkably skillful at navigating the country’s fractious political culture. But the political forces that could bring about the prime minister’s downfall are now in motion. With general elections at most a year away, domestic politics in Israel are buzzing. Within the space of just a few months, both the Likud and Labor parties could have new leaders. In the Likud Party, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to challenge Sharon for the party leadership in the fall. Labor chooses a leader on Nov. 19, and whoever wins is likely to pull the party out of Sharon’s national unity government and mount a vigorous challenge from the opposition benches. The election campaign could even lead to a split in Labor, and a new party with a strongly leftist tilt. While party elections might seem like an internal Israeli issue, at stake is the direction of the blocs that will contend for power as Israel struggles to break out of military, diplomatic and economic crises. Opinion polls currently show Sharon leading Netanyahu and all the various potential Labor leaders, but things could change dramatically by Election Day, depending on developments in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and on the economic front. This week Sharon and Netanyahu crossed swords in a crucial preliminary duel. The 305,000-strong Likud membership went to the polls Monday to elect the 2,500 delegates who form the central committee, the party’s highest policy-making body. The outcome of the vote won’t be known until next week, given organizational gaffes that led to pandemonium and a delay in the balloting in Jerusalem and some other localities. Still, the composition of the party’s new central committee will give a first indication of the balance of power between Sharon and Netanyahu; the first sign could be whether the convention chooses a Sharon man or a Netanyahu supporter as its chairman. Netanyahu cohorts accuse Sharon of planning to use his control of party machinery to manipulate the central committee’s operations. Sharon’s people dismiss Netanyahu’s claims, but even they have to concede that the gap among Likud supporters — as opposed to party members — is closing. The latest independent poll in the Ma’ariv newspaper shows Sharon’s lead over Netanyahu closing from 12 percentage points to just 2, 43 percent to 41 percent. Netanyahu has tried to outflank Sharon from the right and blast the government’s economic performance. For example, he urges tougher military and political action against the Palestinians — including the expulsion of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — and claims to have the economic training and vision Sharon lacks. Labor politicians also are mounting a two-pronged attack on Sharon. At their party convention in late September, Labor Party members cited Sharon’s attitude toward the Palestinians and the country’s ailing economy as reasons to leave the national unity government. The unity government has provided a remarkable measure of stability over the past 18 months as Israel has faced one of the gravest crises of its history. But Labor has found it difficult to project a distinct image to voters as it criticizes Sharon’s policies but, because of its position in the unity government, shares responsibility for them. More than Defense Minister and party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, those politicians reflected the convention’s mood. When Ben-Eliezer suggested supporting the state budget — with changes to be proposed later — the delegates rejected the idea and said Labor should take a stand on socioeconomic issues. Indeed, Ben-Eliezer seems to have been the convention’s big loser. He incurred widespread anger when he implied that his leadership of the party was being challenged because of his Sephardi background. Haim Ramon, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and one of the three contenders for Labor leadership, emerged the big winner. He called for immediate withdrawal from the government, accusing the party’s Cabinet ministers of following Sharon’s line. “You are like the sheep on Sharon’s farm,” Ramon charged. The third candidate, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, still seems to be the front-runner by a comfortable margin, making up for his lack of oratorical skill with quiet-spoken conviction. A new survey shows Mitzna with 36 percent support within the party, far above Ramon and Ben-Eliezer, who have 25 percent each. But some pundits predict Mitzna will start losing ground to Ramon, who, since the convention, has picked up support from a number of Labor heavyweights, including Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. To make sure the doves win the party leadership from the more centrist Ben-Eliezer, Mitzna and Ramon could join forces shortly before a runoff; the question is which of the two would be the candidate. Mitzna, the most outspokenly dovish of the candidates, received a minor setback this week with reports that Palestinian officials had offered financial support for his campaign. Though he rejected the offer, the fact that Palestinians are so eager to see Mitzna elected may worry Israeli voters. But there is another twist in the tale. If Ben Eliezer confounds the polls and wins — as when he upset Burg for the party leadership last year — Labor could split in two. Former Cabinet minister Yossi Beilin has made it clear that if Ben Eliezer wins he will break away and lead other dovish Laborites into a coalition with the left-wing Meretz, the small Russian immigrant Democratic Choice Party and an Arab group led by the former secretary-general of Israel’s Communist Party, Salim Jubran. “It will not be a case of Yossi Beilin leaving the party and the rest of them living happily ever after,” Beilin said. “Labor will be smaller than the party we are going to establish. All the polls show that.” Another complicating factor is that the next general election will be held under the old one-ballot system of proportional representation. Unlike the last three national elections, in this election voters will not directly elect a prime minister, a format that profoundly changed both the composition of the Knesset and Israeli political culture. But voters still are likely to be strongly influenced by the identity of the party leaders. And though polls today show the Likud winning about twice as many seats as Labor, who knows what will happen if there is a leadership reshuffle, a remaking of the political landscape, or major diplomatic and economic changes by the time of the elections. All of which could jeopardize Sharon’s continued hold on power.(Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.)
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