Sharon suffers blow in party vote

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Aug. 19 (JTA) — Ariel Sharon appears to have taken unilateralism all the way: Not only does the Israeli prime minister seek one-sided “disengagement” from the Palestinians, but he’s willing to do it without the support of his own Likud Party. The Likud Central Committee voted Thursday against allowing the opposition Labor Party into a future national unity government, a snub to Sharon’s bid to expand his coalition in an effort to push through his planned withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and areas of the West Bank next year. Apparently unfazed, Sharon went on a 10-day vacation at his Negev ranch, leaving his office to voice his continued political confidence. “The prime minister is moving ahead with the disengagement plan,” his office said in a statement. “He will try to build a stable coalition government.” It would not be the first time Sharon has defied Likud’s 3,000 Central Committee members, who are generally more hawkish than the party rank-and-file. Last May, Sharon scheduled a Central Committee referendum on the disengagement plan — then ignored it when the committee overwhelmingly rejected his diplomatic vision. Sharon loyalists point out that Central Committee motions are not binding on the government. Still, with 58 percent of the party’s hard-core members voting Thursday against a coalition with Labor, the prime minister faces a deepening credibility crisis. The results of the overnight ballot in Tel Aviv prompted Labor’s chief negotiator, Dalia Itzik, to propose that Labor and Shinui — which currently is the second-largest party in the government — join forces against the prime minister. Itzik called on Labor leader Shimon Peres and Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, leader of Shinui, to coordinate a date for elections. But political analysts say Labor and Shinui, both politically centrist, are unlikely to turn their backs on Sharon at this point. Losing seats in government is a powerful disincentive, analysts say, noting that that fear may be what motivated senior Likud members such as Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to lead the motion against unity with Labor. Sharon confidants had spoken openly of Peres taking over the Foreign Affairs portfolio. It apparently is up to Sharon to make the next move. One way to reconcile Likud hawks to an eventual partnership with Labor might be to close a coalition deal with United Torah Judaism, a right-leaning, fervently Orthodox bloc Sharon has been courting. That, however, could lead the secularist Shinui to quit the government. “There are times in a nation’s life when it has to make difficult decisions. Israel has reached such a moment,” Sharon said in an address to the Central Committee that at times was drowned out by jeers from party rebels and cheers from loyalists in the raucous audience. Polls show that most Israelis back Sharon’s disengagement plan, which would seek to end the four-year-old Palestinian intifada by removing all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the West Bank. Such unofficial national plebiscites are likely to bolster his decision to soldier on. In another boost for the prime minister, Ha’aretz reported that Sharon at least won a majority in the polling station reserved for Likud lawmakers and ministers — the people charged with voting in the Knesset for any eventual coalition deal with Labor. Still, those ministers and legislators know that there might be a future price to pay if they back the evident will of the central committee.

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