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Deal on Gaza Border Strip Sets Stage for Sharon-netanyahu Battle

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The agreement under which Egyptian forces will guard a perilous corridor along the border with the Gaza Strip could prove key to Ariel Sharon’s future. The success or failure of the agreement with Egypt goes to the heart not just of Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal strategy but of his political leadership: Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is highlighting the potential dangers of the agreement in a campaign, now moving into high gear, to unseat Sharon as Likud Party leader and as prime minister.

In a long-anticipated move, Netanyahu announced his candidacy to challenge Sharon on Tuesday, just weeks after resigning as finance minister, ostensibly to protest the Gaza withdrawal.

“Ariel Sharon has abandoned the Likud’s principles and decided to take another route, the leftist route,” Netanyahu told reporters and cheering party rebels who had broken with Sharon over the Gaza move. “He is threatening to destroy, with his own hands, the house that he helped build.”

If weapons smuggling from Egypt across the Gaza border intensifies — and especially if the Palestinians use smuggled weapons to launch a new wave of terrorism from Gaza — Netanyahu is likely to make major political gains at Sharon’s expense.

The Sharon-Netanyahu power struggle could come to a head sooner than expected after a Likud court ruled Monday, against Sharon’s wishes, that the party’s Central Committee will convene in late September to set a date for a leadership primary.

Most political pundits agree that the ruling has set in motion a dynamic that will lead to a split in the Likud, with Sharon leading a moderate wing out of the party rather than losing a leadership race to Netanyahu, who is well ahead in party leadership polls.

Two large questions are at issue between Sharon and Netanyahu over the agreement to allow Egyptian forces to patrol the 8.5-mile Philadelphia route along the Gaza-Egypt border: Will having Egyptians rather than Israelis guard the corridor lead to more or less terrorism? And will the beefed-up Egyptian presence serve as a bridgehead for more Egyptian forces in the Sinai Desert, forces that might eventually threaten Israel?

Sharon argues that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in preventing Gaza from becoming a terrorist base that could threaten both countries.

The Egyptians, Sharon says, probably will use their influence to prevent Gaza from becoming a jumping-off point for terrorist actions against them. That in turn will mean a weakening of terrorist militias working against Israel, he believes.

Sharon further says that the Philadelphia agreement specifically rules out any further Egyptian deployments in the Sinai. He notes that Israel specifically rejected an Egyptian proposal to deploy thousands more soldiers along the Israeli-Egyptian border south of Gaza down to the Red Sea port of Eilat.

Finally, Sharon argues, what alternatives did Israel have? Leaving a handful of Israeli soldiers exposed on the Philadelphia route would turn them into sitting ducks after the rest of the Israel Defense Forces leave Gaza — and could allow Palestinians and others to argue that Israel hasn’t fully withdrawn from the coastal strip.

Netanyahu argues that by allowing regular Egyptian army forces on the border with Gaza, Israel has created a precedent for a much larger Egyptian deployment in Sinai, no matter what the agreement says. His supporters claim that for the tactical value of preventing smuggling into Gaza, Israel has given up one of the biggest strategic gains of its 1979 peace agreement with Egypt: a fully demilitarized Sinai Peninsula as a buffer between the Israeli and Egyptian armies.

Netanyahu’s immediate concern, however, is that Gaza will became a huge base for Palestinian and international terrorism. He maintains that the same logic behind the Gaza withdrawal and the invitation to Egyptian forces to patrol the border also will compel Israel to allow a seaport and airport in Gaza, enabling the Palestinians to bring in heavy weapons and explosives unimpeded.

“Sharon’s decision to place Israel’s security in the hands of Egypt instead of the IDF is another mistake that gives a tail wind to terror,” Netanyahu declared after the Cabinet approved the agreement on the Philadelphia route Sunday.

The agreement is highly detailed: It allows the Egyptians to deploy 750 border police, 504 machine guns, 94 pistols, 44 jeeps, 31 armored personnel carriers, eight helicopters without spy cameras and three radar systems. Egypt will not be allowed to supply weapons to the Palestinians without prior Israeli approval. The multinational force that has been stationed in Sinai since the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal will monitor Egypt’s compliance with the restrictions.

The argument over the Philadelphia route hints at the coming bitter struggle between Sharon and Netanyahu. Personal and ideological differences between the two men seem irreconcilable, and a torrent of harsh words make it unlikely that they can remain in the same party.

In announcing his challenge Tuesday, Netanyahu declared that Sharon was not worthy to be prime minister, that he had abandoned Likud ideology and that corruption under his rule was rife.

The night before, in a pre-emptive 45-minute television interview, Sharon characterized Netanyahu as a man who flees from responsibility and doesn’t have the nerves to lead a country like Israel.

“In any stressful situation, he immediately panics and loses his cool,” Sharon said.

Sharon also dropped several hints that he wouldn’t stay around to lose to Netanyahu: He will not be Netanyahu’s No. 2; the Likud had been infiltrated by far-right elements and is not the same party it had been; and he still had work to do as prime minister, Sharon said.

A political analyst for the Ma’ariv newspaper, Nadav Eyal, quotes Sharon aides as saying that the dynamic started by Netanyahu, leading to a Central Committee move in late September to oust an incumbent prime minister, will be the perfect backdrop for Sharon to establish a new political party. Analysts have spoken of a “big bang” of Israeli politics, under which Sharon would take moderate members of Likud into a new party formed with the secular Shinui Party and centrist elements of Labor.

“The Likud Central Committee, perhaps one of the most hated bodies in Israel, sacking one of the most popular prime ministers because he took Israel out of Gaza, will be a dream start for a new party,” Eyal writes, paraphrasing the aides.

Sharon can’t afford to run against Netanyahu and lose: It would taint any subsequent decision to leave to start a new party, and would make it far more difficult for Sharon to take other leading Likudniks with him.

Pundits therefore believe he’ll make his decision soon, probably when he returns from the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in mid-September.

In any event, the Philadelphia route agreement and the Gaza pullout will be high on the agenda of the Sharon-Netanyahu showdown, whether it takes place inside or outside Likud. What happens on the ground in Gaza over the next few months could well decide who Israel’s next prime minister will be, and what comes next on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

JTA correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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