JERUSALEM, May 14 (JTA) ï¿½ Itï¿½s no secret that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to challenge Ariel Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party and, he hopes, succeed Sharon as prime minister of Israel. So when Netanyahu moved to have Likudï¿½s Central Committee vote Sunday against the establishment of a Palestinian state, it seemed he had found the perfect weapon to accelerate Sharonï¿½s political demise.
Indeed, Netanyahu succeeded in pushing through the vote against a Palestinian state, over Sharonï¿½s vehement opposition.
Yet after being seen for some time as the front-runner to be the next leader of the Likud and possibly the next prime minister, Netanyahu may have embarked on a gambit with unintended consequences.
Paradoxically, the fact that the policy-making body of Sharonï¿½s own party turned against him has only shored up Sharonï¿½s credentials among the general Israeli public as a centrist and a responsible national leader.
Internationally, too, Sharonï¿½s strong statements repudiating the Central Committee vote reassured world leaders that he would not spurn the slight recent opening toward peace, and painted him as a statesman able to rise above petty domestic politics.
Sharonï¿½s troubles in his party began last September when he declared that, unlike the Turks, British and Jordanians, Israel was prepared to allow the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.
That set off alarm bells in the Likud, where the idea of Palestinian statehood long has been anathema.
Prompted by Netanyahu, some party activists decided to bring Sharonï¿½s deviation from the party line to a vote.
Sharon tried to defer the vote against Palestinian statehood, but was soundly defeated. Still, commentators lauded his courage in presenting the motion despite the certainty of a humiliating defeat.
Sharon made clear to the committee that he was not prepared to rule anything out at this juncture, and that he wanted to keep his diplomatic options open.
ï¿½I was elected to bring security and peace,ï¿½ he thundered, ï¿½and that is what I intend to do.ï¿½
Even after the voting, Sharon stressed that he had no intention of allowing the Central Committee decision to bind him in any way. He would act, he said, as he had always done ï¿½ according to his understanding of Israelï¿½s national interest.
Sharon also told U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that he would not allow party machinations to deflect him from his search for peace with the Palestinians.
Glowing media reports the next day said Sharon had come across as a national leader, ready to take a political beating within his party rather than compromise the national interest.
Netanyahu, on the contrary, was widely depicted as an opportunist, willing to undermine Israelï¿½s international standing for the sake of petty political gain.
Worse, by opposing Palestinian statehood so vehemently, Netanyahu may have painted himself into a far right-wing corner, which will make it difficult for him to win support from the center if he runs again as a candidate for prime minister.
Indeed, the vote might even hurt Netanyahuï¿½s chances of winning the Likud nomination: The party leader and prime ministerial candidate is elected by the full Likud membership, currently estimated at about 150,000, not by the more militant, 2,600-member Central Committee.
As columnist Nahum Barnea put it in Yediot Achronot: ï¿½Netanyahu has placed himself so far to the right that soon theyï¿½ll be comparing Sharon to Chirac and Netanyahu to Le Pen.ï¿½
Netanyahu supporters, however, argue that it was their man who was going out on a limb for the national interest. They contend that a Palestinian state would be a mortal danger to Israel, because statehood entails control of airspace, borders, armed forces and water.
Even if limits are imposed in these areas by treaty, Israel could hardly guarantee that the Palestinians would observe the restrictions.
Netanyahu backers also dismiss Sharonï¿½s argument that the issue is not relevant now, and say Netanyahu acted just in time to subvert secret government plans to grant Palestinian statehood soon.
Netanyahu says he suspects that Sharon intends to go to a proposed Middle East peace conference this summer with a plan for early Palestinian statehood, based on a formula devised by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority official Ahmed Karia.
ï¿½Whatever talks have been going on with the Palestinians behind the scenes will now come up against a very strong barrier,ï¿½ warned legislator Yisrael Katz, a key Netanyahu supporter.
Netanyahu backers depict the Central Committee vote as the beginning of the end for Sharon. They predict a snowball effect as allegiances shift to the man perceived as the stronger candidate.
Internal party polls show Netanyahu 15 percent to 25 percent ahead of Sharon among the full Likud membership, they say.
But independent polls say otherwise. A recent Maï¿½ariv poll showed Sharon leading Netanyahu by 44 percent to 35 percent among right-wing voters, and a poll in Yediot Achronot showed Sharon even further ahead in the Likud, by 54 percent to 35 percent.
A few months ago, it was a foregone conclusion among Israeli pundits that Netanyahu would supplant Sharon as Likud leader sometime before the next national election in October 2003. Thatï¿½s no longer the case today.
Ironically, the new faith in Sharon, which started with Israelï¿½s invasion of the West Bank in late March in response to Palestinian terror attacks, gained further momentum through public perceptions of what happened in the Likud Central Committee.
Ultimately, though, Sharonï¿½s grip on power depends on two factors largely outside his control ï¿½ the Labor Partyï¿½s continued support for the national unity coalition and the level of Palestinian terror.
If terror returns to Israelï¿½s streets, voters may look further to the right. But if a peace process is launched and Sharon follows through, he probably will retain the broad-based popular support he enjoys today.
Labor leader and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has made it clear that he will continue to support Sharon only if he keeps peace options open. Ben-Eliezer bluntly warned that if Sharon allows the Likud Central Committee to dictate policy, Labor will leave the coalition.
The Israeli left is urging Ben-Eliezer not to wait until Sharon reveals his intentions. The night before the Likud meeting, an estimated 60,000 demonstrators gathered in Tel Avivï¿½s Rabin Square calling on Israel to pull out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and demanding that Labor leave the government.
The growing left-wing pressure does not affect Sharon directly, but it does resound in Labor.
The result is a chain reaction: Left-wingers pressure Labor to leave the government, and Labor leaders, who very much want to stay, pressure Sharon toward peacemaking.
Matters could come to a head at next monthï¿½s Labor Party convention.
There the party will have to decide whether Sharon is moving quickly and seriously enough in the direction of viable Palestinian statehood ï¿½ which Labor, the left and virtually the entire international community see as the only long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.