With polls showing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon leading by as much as 22 percent over rival Benjamin Netanyahu in this week’s primary for Likud chairman, attention already began focusing on the Jan. 28 general election.
"If Sharon wins [the primary] by a great deal, he can pursue his own line," said Gabriel Ben-Dor, a political science professor at the University of Haifa. "But if it’s close, he will have to compromise with Netanyahu and that would make life difficult for him" in the general election.
Just as Sharon supporters worried that overconfidence was going to keep their voters home on Primary Day, there was concern too about cockiness in the general election. This will be the first general election since 1996 in which Israelis will not vote directly for prime minister but only for a party, and Sharon’s primary numbers may influence the general election.
Analysts predict that Likud could almost double the 19 seats it now has in the Knesset and that Labor could lose 10 to 15 of its 25 seats. But one scenario suggests it might not be a slam dunk for Likud.
If opinion polls sustain predictions of a landslide Likud victory as Election Day nears, voters may opt to vote for another party believing Sharon is a shoo-in, observed University of Haifa Professor Asher Arian.
"If we judge by the 1999 election, there will be 33 parties," he said. "So the question is how much strategic voting will there be. Will people vote for the party they want or the party they want to win? For instance, would a Shas Party supporter vote for Sharon’s Likud Party thinking Sharon would be best for prime minister or for the Shas Party thinking it could do him and his colleagues the most good?
"As the poll results give Sharon a wider and wider lead, he may find himself in a big dilemma because more people would feel comfortable not voting for him."
Arian added that if many Israelis vote their parochial interests, "the Likud vote would become smaller and smaller."
"If that was the case, Sharon might have a problem if the race ended up close" with new Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, he said.
Mitzna has vowed that if elected he would immediately dismantle all settlements in the Gaza Strip and begin one year of "unconditional" negotiations with the Palestinians. If no agreement were reached in that time, he would declare a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.
If the political pundits are correct and the Labor Party is trounced in the election, Ben-Dor noted that Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is positioning himself to call for new Labor Party elections in a bid to be re-elected party chairman. Ben-Eliezer might then bring the Labor Party back into a coalition government with Likud.
Mitzna might be hurt by his refusal to join with Sharon in what would be the fourth unity government in the country’s 54-year history, Arian noted. Sharon was critical of Ben-Eliezer’s decision last month to pull Labor out of the unity government Sharon headed, which precipitated new elections.
Sharon has said he wishes to re-create a unity government if re-elected, believing a unified approach is necessary to combat 25 months of Palestinian terror attacks that have claimed more than 680 Israeli lives.
One of the latest was an attack last week on a Jerusalem bus filled with schoolchildren and women. A suicide bomber from Bethlehem managed to get on the bus and blow himself up, killing 11 Israelis. That prompted Israeli troops to reoccupy Bethlehem in a search for other terrorists, saying the city had again become a launching pad for terror attacks. It also caused Israeli troops to sweep into other Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza.
During what the Israeli military said was a gun battle with Palestinians in the West Bank city of Jenin, a British consultant for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was shot. Israeli media said the consultant had called Israeli officials moments before he was shot to say that Palestinian gunmen had infiltrated the UN compound in which he was standing.
The UN worker reportedly was shot by an Israeli soldier who mistook his cell phone for a hand grenade. A UN spokesman denied that Palestinian gunmen had entered the compound.
Representatives of Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the United States are to meet in Washington Dec. 20 to discuss their proposal for an end to the fighting and the creation of a Palestinian state with temporary borders next year and permanent borders in 2005. But an Israeli official was quoted Tuesday as saying the U.S. had agreed not to finalize the proposal until after the Jan. 28 election.
Before Likud voters went to the polls this week, Sharon and Netanyahu both promised to appoint the other foreign minister should Likud win the general election. And analysts questioned whether there was any real difference between the two candidates.
"I have argued for a long time that there is no difference, despite the fact that Sharon has acquired a reputation as a moderate and Bibi [Netanyahu] as an extremist," said Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Siegman said Netanyahu’s successful push earlier this year to have the Likud Central Committee adopt a resolution rejecting a Palestinian state served to cement those reputations. Sharon opposed the resolution.
Siegman insisted, however, that Sharon is being deceptive because he "embraces the same positions Netanyahu states publicly but believes the way to achieve them is not to admit that this is what his government is all about. He’s quietly implementing facts on the ground (expanding settlements and their infrastructure) under the cover of Palestinian terrorism."
He noted that Tzahi Hanegbi, the environment minister, was quoted as saying that although the differences between Sharon and Netanyahu are minor, Sharon has the skill to press for them "without shattering Israel’s relationship with the world, with Europe, with the United States, and with the Arab states that we have peace accords with."
Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, argued that Netanyahu is a "total opportunist who doesn’t have any principles. You can see him changing his slogans from day to day. If he was elected, he would do what it takes to stay in power, even if it means dismantling settlements and giving up territory."
Alpher said Netanyahu did just that when he served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
And although Sharon may say he is prepared to make "painful concessions" in return for peace with the Palestinians, Alpher said: "Don’t believe a word of it."
In addition, although Sharon has proven his ability to run the country, when Netanyahu was prime minister he "didn’t have a clue," Alpher said.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, said Netanyahu was hurt in the eyes of many Likud voters by his performance as prime minister.
"His career has been characterized by strong rhetorical stances and then adopting a different policy once in office," he said. "So on the basis of his three years as prime minister, you have to discount the statements he made now."
Pipes also believes that Sharon may harbor the same feelings as Netanyahu but that he has learned to be a statesman who has "tailored" his views to those of the Bush administration.
"I don’t think Sharon is any more eager for a Palestinian state than Netanyahu, but he figures he can acquiesce to the U.S. because it won’t have any practical implications," Pipes said.
But Leslie Feldman, a political science professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, said Sharon will "ultimately have to address the question of land for peace. If George W. Bush is going to broker a [peace] deal," Sharon may be compelled to bow to his demands.
"There can be peace the same way Israel made peace with Jordan and Egypt," Feldman said. "Those countries wanted peace. Whoever wants peace with Israel can get it. So far, I’m not terribly convinced the Palestinians want peace."
Feldman said she is convinced that Sharon will be asked to form a new government after January’s election, no matter how good a campaign Labor runs.
"For better or for worse, Ariel Sharon is synonymous with the future of Israel and the future of the peace process," she said.