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As Withdrawal Nears, Sharon Faces Challenge from Netanyahu

After keeping a relatively low profile in recent months, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a forceful bid for the national leadership, blasting Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and trumpeting his own economic policy as a way to make Israel one of the richest countries on earth within a decade. The move is not just an expression of personal rivalry. Netanyahu’s overt challenge to the Israeli prime minister could split the already troubled Likud Party, and is sure to have a major impact during and after the disengagement process from Gaza and the northern West Bank, scheduled to begin in July.

If the process fails, Netanyahu almost certainly will challenge Sharon and may well unseat him as prime minister. If disengagement succeeds, Sharon may well have to strike a deal with Netanyahu over what happens next — which could mean a less generous Israeli peace offer to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu chose the moment of one of Sharon’s greatest political successes to mount his attack. In successive days in late March, Sharon overcame the last two remaining parliamentary obstacles to his disengagement plan. On March 29, the Knesset voted down a call for a national referendum on disengagement, and on March 30 it passed the 2005 state budget.

Defeat for Sharon in either vote would have meant national elections and an indefinite deferment of disengagement. Victory meant that at least as far as the Knesset is concerned, there is nothing to stop Sharon from going through with the pullback in the summer.

Netanyahu made his move as soon as the budget votes were counted. Instead of celebrating the government victory, he took the floor to warn that Israel’s recent economic success would continue only “if the prime minister cooperated with him.”

From the Knesset, Netanyahu went to a Jerusalem conference organized by the right-wing Besheva newspaper, where he launched an unprecedentedly harsh attack on Sharon’s disengagement plan. The policy of unilateral disengagement, he argued, was getting the international community and the Arabs used to the idea that Israel could be pressed to make concessions while receiving nothing in return.

Referring to the policy of “reciprocity” he insisted on as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu declared, “We must get back to the policy we abandoned, the policy of asking for something in exchange for each and every one of the concessions we make.”

As for the substance of Sharon’s plan, Netanyahu said it was full of holes and would allow massive arms smuggling into Gaza. Finally, Netanyahu implied that he would be able to get a far better deal than Sharon on the West Bank after disengagement: Israel, he said, should simply take over the 75 percent or so of the West Bank that is uninhabited.

In an effort to mollify Netanyahu and stop him from placing himself at the head of a growing and hawkish rebel wing within Likud, Sharon invited Netanyahu to an intimate gathering of friends marking the anniversary of the death of Sharon’s wife, Lily.

The two men held a long private conversation, but Netanyahu denies that they struck any political deal.

Indeed, Netanyahu is continuing to promote his leadership bid. On Sunday, the day Sharon flew to Texas for key meetings with President Bush and other U.S. officials, Netanyahu held a news conference to highlight his economic achievements.

“In the next two years Israel will enjoy the highest growth rate in the West,” he declared.

Speaking of a grand economic vision, Netanyahu declared that “under his leadership” Israel could become one of the 10 richest countries in the world within a decade.

The subtext of Netanyahu’s message is clear: Israel under him will prosper, whereas under Sharon the country has a dubious future.

The latest round in the longstanding feud between Sharon and Netanyahu dates back to October, when Netanyahu tried to topple the government by getting five Likud ministers to vote with him and the National Religious Party against disengagement in a key Knesset vote.

In the end, Netanyahu and his group caved in after the NRP reached a deal with Sharon. Sharon accused them of “planning a putsch.”

Since then there has been speculation that at some point Netanyahu might put himself at the head of the strong anti-disengagement camp in Likud, a move that could split the party. His attacks on Sharon over the past two weeks add weight to that scenario.

Bitter personal recriminations and strong ideological feelings are not the only reasons for a possible split. Likud insiders say the system for electing Knesset candidates could prove even more divisive.

Under the current system, a maximum of 25 of the current 40 Likud Knesset members — plus the two Cabinet ministers who are not legislators — will be eligible for re-election. In other words, there will be no place for at least 17 of the present incumbents.

“This overcrowded situation is creating tremendous tension,” said Yitzhak Regev, an influential Sharon supporter in the party’s Central Committee. “Some of the present Knesset members might welcome a split and the chance for guaranteed places on a new party list outside Likud.”

Much will depend on how disengagement turns out on the ground, Likud insiders say. If it fails and a new round of fighting with the Palestinians erupts, they say Netanyahu has worked himself into the perfect position to challenge Sharon for the leadership on a right-wing ticket, blaming the prime minister for the disengagement fiasco.

If disengagement succeeds, they say Netanyahu and Sharon could clash over what to do next, especially if Sharon proposes a second unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank — and this could split the party.

Alternatively, they say, Netanyahu might offer his cooperation if Sharon agrees to modify his political plans and hand over the reins of power at a specified date — such as 2008, when Sharon turns 80.

Bottom line: Sharon may have had his own way with disengagement, relegating Netanyahu to the role of a noisy bit player. But as the huge withdrawal project approaches, with all its attendant risks, Netanyahu, the former and would-be future prime minister, is bounding back to center stage.

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