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Praised on World Stage, Sharon Faces Upheaval in His Own Party

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The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank may be a catalyst for a breakthrough in Israel’s diplomatic status — but it also could cost Prime Minister Ariel Sharon his job. Sharon has never been more popular in the international community, and his bold Gaza withdrawal seems likely to produce diplomatic dividends for Israel.

In his own Likud Party, however, many see the move as a betrayal of party values and of Sharon’s electoral commitments.

Next week Sharon will visit the United Nations for the opening of the General Assembly in New York, where dozens of world leaders are expected to congratulate him on the pullout. But when he gets back, he will have little more than a week to prepare for a crucial showdown with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned last month as finance minister and now is challenging Sharon for the Likud leadership and the premiership.

On Sept. 26, the party’s Central Committee is due to vote on a date for a leadership primary. If Sharon loses, he could well lead a breakaway faction out of the party, a political adventure that could backfire and cost him the premiership.

The Bush administration is well aware of Sharon’s domestic difficulties. President Bush recently sent two clear messages designed to help Sharon — one telling the Palestinians that the next move is up to them, and the other to the Europeans urging them not to complicate Sharon’s position by pressuring him for additional concessions.

The administration wants to see the Palestinians take full control of Gaza, set up what Bush calls a “working government” and dismantle terrorist militias. As for the Europeans and other U.S. allies, a senior American official told The New York Times that when Sharon comes to the United Nations, the message “should be one of congratulations, not one of new pressures.”

The American policy is designed to get an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue going, based on the “road map” peace plan. But it’s also meant to help Sharon at home: The Americans want to see Sharon stay in power so that the process he started continues, pundits say.

Sharon’s newfound popularity on the international stage stems partly from admiration for the leadership he displayed in pushing though the withdrawal in the teeth of fierce domestic opposition, and partly because many in the international community see the move as a major contribution toward Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.

On a visit to Israel immediately after the pullout, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, succinctly summed up the mood: “Sharon had the courage to make the decision, which was implemented in a highly professional manner,” he said.

He added that the parties now should do all they can not to lose the momentum Sharon created.

In the past, of course, goodwill for Israeli concessions has proven remarkably fleeting. But beyond the praise for Sharon, there could be some real diplomatic gains for Israel.

In the run-up to the pullout and in the immediate aftermath, Muslim and Arab countries signaled a new readiness for dealings with the Jewish state. In a dramatic development in early September, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, met his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Istanbul. The public meeting was the first between senior ministers from the huge Muslim country and Israel, and it sparked speculation about imminent ties.

“It is important that the action taken by Israel and the prime minister not go unreciprocated, and we wanted to show that it is possible to make peace between Muslims and Muslim countries and Israel,” Kasuri declared.

However, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has agreed to address U.S. Jewish groups when he comes to New York for the General Assembly opening, made clear that full diplomatic relations are not in the offing until a Palestinian state is established alongside Israel.

There also were signs of a new readiness for ties with Israel in the Arab world. Shalom said he would go to Tunisia in November as the president’s guest, and there also were rumors of impending ties with Algeria, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were said to be planning visits to Israel.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue, it came as no surprise that the rumors were later denied. But there is enough evidence to suggest that discreet feelers are being put out, and the results will depend on the extent to which Israeli-Palestinian relations prosper.

More encounters are possible at the U.N. gathering, but when Sharon returns from New York he’ll head straight into the maelstrom of Israeli politics. Opponents of the Gaza pullout are determined to show that any Israeli prime minister who contemplates territorial concessions to the Palestinians will lose power: That’s what happened in the past to Prime Ministers Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak, and that’s what is about to happen to Sharon, Likud hawks say.

The immediate issue between Sharon and Netanyahu is over when the leadership primary takes place. Netanyahu wants it in November, Sharon next April or May.

Likud Cabinet ministers who don’t want to see their party torn apart are proposing a compromise they hope will keep both Sharon and Netanyahu in the Likud: a leadership primary in February, provided that both men promise to stay in the Likud even if they lose.

For now, both Sharon and Netanyahu reject the compromise. Sharon will not commit to staying in the Likud because he knows that his veiled threat to leave — which could cost the party well over a dozen seats in the Knesset — is his trump card.

To some extent, the threat seems to be working: A poll in Tuesday’s Ha’aretz of Likud members who will choose the new leader showed Sharon only 6 percentage points behind Netanyahu, far better than a poll two weeks ago that showed Netanyahu in front by 17 points.

That was the good news for Sharon. The bad news was a weekend poll in Yediot Achronot that showed Sharon’s hawkish opponents taking the top 10 places on the Likud’s Knesset list, with Sharon and his supporters well behind.

The discrepancy between the polls comes down to the fact that Likud’s entire 150,000 members elect the leader, whereas the Knesset members are elected by the party’s 3,000-member Central Committee, which tends to be more hawkish.

It also is the Central Committee that decides when primaries will be held. Rather than face defeat there, Sharon may decide to split the party.

Whether the degree of support he gets worldwide helps sway enough Central Committee members for him to stay remains to be seen.

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