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Round 1 Goes to Sharon, but Bibi Preps for a Future Challenge

September 28, 2005
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Ariel Sharon may have beaten back his most immediate challenge in his Likud Party, but the possibility of a split in the ruling party still looms large. Two opposing factions in the party, led by the Israeli prime minster and his main rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remain bitterly divided over major policy issues.

The showdown merely has been postponed for a few months after a key party vote Monday. By a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, the Likud’s Central Committee rejected a motion to bring leadership primaries forward to November, meaning that Netanyahu’s bid for Likud leadership has been postponed to April or May.

“Round 1 in the battle over Likud ideology is over; Round Two is still ahead of us,” Netanyahu declared after the results were announced late Monday night.

Had he lost the vote, Sharon might have left the Likud to form a new centrist party, without Netanyahu’s more hawkish faction. Though he denies he has any intention to leave Likud, many pundits believe Sharon still may do so eventually.

Given the deep ideological differences and the bitter personal animosities between the Likud’s two camps, it’s hard to see how the party can remain united.

At the center of the ideological divide is Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Sharon believes the recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has created conditions for a major breakthrough. Netanyahu maintains that Gaza will turn into a terrorist base, and that future moves regarding the Palestinians should be made only on a basis of strict reciprocity, not in terms of unilateral Israeli concessions.

Dozens of missiles fired from Gaza at Israeli towns over the weekend put the opposing visions to the test. The missile attacks by Hamas seemed to vindicate Netanyahu, and polls taken the day before the Central Committee vote showed him leading by between 9 percent and 12 percent.

But Israel’s sharp military response to the rockets, which silenced the Palestinian guns, helped Sharon redress the balance.

Most pundits agree that Sharon’s victory is only temporary. Writing in Yediot Achronot, political analyst Sima Kadmon argued that Sharon “has been given a reprieve during which he will be able to decide what to do next.

“He has regained the ability to make choices according to a timetable that suits him. It doesn’t mean he’s staying in the Likud,” Kadmon wrote. “Victory is sweet, and victory over Netanyahu even sweeter. But Sharon is under no illusions. He knows he still faces the really tough hurdle: defeating Netanyahu in party primaries.”

Many pundits feel Sharon won’t wait around that long. He knows that even if he wins the primary and retains the premiership as Likud leader, he’ll be faced with an even more oppositional Likud Knesset faction than the present one, making it difficult for him to govern.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert contends that the rifts in the Likud are too deep to be papered over. In his view, the fundamental problem is that the fault line in the Israeli political divide runs directly through the Likud.

That likely will lead to a significant realignment of political forces in Israel, including a split in the Likud, he believes.

“If the positive process set in train by Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza gathers momentum, then naturally the makeup of the political forces will have to be adjusted to meet the changing reality,” Olmert told JTA. “And there will have to be a degree of compatibility between the positions taken by political leaders and the political forces they represent.”

In the meantime, Sharon is taking tough military measures to keep the lid on terrorism from Gaza. Since the withdrawal Israel has evolved a new security doctrine for Gaza, based on deterrence.

The thinking behind the new stance is that the withdrawal gave Israel back the moral high ground: The Palestinians will not be able to depict terrorist attacks as resistance to occupation, and the international community will condone strong retaliation against Palestinian aggression.

The barrage of Kassam rockets was a first test case. During a Hamas show of strength in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp last Friday, rockets that the terrorist group was displaying exploded, killing 21 people and wounding dozens.

Israel denied any involvement in the explosion — and, for once, most Palestinians believed the Israeli account. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Hamas of putting Palestinian civilians at risk by toting around explosives in public, and he urged Hamas to desist from further military parades.

Hamas stuck to its version of events, however, and fired more than 40 rockets at Israeli civilian targets between last Friday afternoon and Saturday night.

Sharon and Israel’s top military brass decided to hit back hard to make the new rules clear from the outset. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz made a string of tough statements underlining the central principle of the new policy: The Palestinians will be made to pay a very heavy price for any attacks on Israeli civilians from Gaza.

“Gaza will shake,” he declared. “If Israel children have difficulty sleeping at night, so will Hamas leaders.”

He added, “The artillery we have moved up to the border with Gaza is not there for show.”

Israel retaliated against the attacks on a wide front: Air force planes hit Hamas institutions and rocket-making laboratories in Gaza; dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists in the West Bank were arrested; Mohammed Sheik Khalil, a top Islamic Jihad military leader, was assassinated in an attack from the air; artillery was moved up to the Gaza border and a special land force began training.

Military analyst Alex Fishman commented in Yediot that “the Israeli response, codenamed ‘First Rain,’ seems more like a tornado . . . Short of reoccupying Gaza, there is everything: closure of the West Bank and Gaza, targeted killings, preparations for a land invasion.”

The tough measures seemed to work: On Sunday night, Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar declared that the militiamen were calling off their attacks. Not only that: Hamas also bowed to the P.A.’s call to refrain from military parades.

For the moment, Sharon seems to have been vindicated. But coming months will give a clearer idea as to who was right about Gaza, Sharon or Netanyahu, and whether they run against each other in the Likud or as the respective heads of two opposing political parties.

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