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The hawk in the wings


WHEN FORMER prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu mounted a political assault Sunday on Israel's serving Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu demonstrated why people speak of blind ambition.

At a meeting of his Likud Party's Central Committee, Netanyahu sprang a trap on Sharon - a resolution saying that ''no Palestinian state will be established west of the Jordan River.''

Since Sharon has said he accepts the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, thereby aligning Israel with President Bush and an international consensus, Likud's overwhelming approval of Netanyahu's resolution placed Sharon in the position of trying to govern Israel in a time of crisis while being denounced on a crucial issue by his own party.

The fact that Central Committee members who voted for the resolution were elected when Netanyahu was prime minister does not alter the predicament facing Sharon and those of his Cabinet ministers who are from Likud. If Sharon goes along with US peacemaking efforts, which are all premised on the common objective of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then he and his fellow Likud ministers will be forced to choose between the government and their party - between Sharon and Netanyahu, known as Bibi.

For the political meaning of Netanyahu's victory at the raucous Likud Central Committee meeting Sunday night is clear to all: Whenever the next Israeli general election is held, Bibi will be the Likud candidate for prime minister, and unless the political climate changes radically, he will be elected.

The resolution against a Palestinian state was Bibi's way of announcing that he is the next prime minister waiting in the wings and that if Sharon attempts to do anything in violation of Netanyahu's strictures, Likud ministers serving in Sharon's Cabinet should resign and bring down the government.

Netanyahu was hardly coy about those strictures Sunday night. Shouting down hecklers loyal to Sharon, he castigated the former general for ending his military attacks on West Bank towns prematurely, for permitting Yasser Arafat to walk out of his besieged compound in Ramallah and resume his leadership role in the West Bank, for proposing a regional summit meeting, and for assenting to a Palestinian state.

In political terms, the springing of Bibi's trap has the paradoxical effect of empowering the Labor Party's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who holds the power to decide whether to sustain or bring down Sharon's government. Diplomatically, Netanyahu has entrapped Israel in the role of the nation that rejects the negotiated two-state solution the United States and the rest of the world are ready to help bring into being. Bibi may be helping his career but not his country.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 5/14/2002.
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