Posted on Fri, May. 31, 2002

Hillel Schenker

Sharon faces challengers from both sides in election

TEL AVIV -- After a bloody crescendo of suicide bombings, Operation Defensive Shield, the Saudi initiative and the American plan to convene a Middle East peace conference this summer or fall, things are beginning to move around here.

Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon converted two ringing defeats into victories. When his own Likud Party tried to bind him to a total rejection of the Palestinian state option, he declared that, as a national leader, he was above party politics and assured Secretary of State Colin Powell that he still favored a Palestinian state at the end of the process.

When his emergency economic austerity plan suffered a surprise defeat in the Israeli Knesset last week, Sharon kicked the culprits -- ultra-Orthodox ministers from the Shas and United Torah parties -- out of his coalition government. Both moves earned him genuine kudos from a large majority of the Israeli public.

Yet the public continues to send mixed messages to the pollsters. While 70 percent support the firing of the ministers, only 37 percent support the emergency economic package, and 49 percent are opposed. An overwhelming 90 percent are worried about Israel's economic situation.


The public also is sending mixed messages about peace and security. While 70 percent support military action in response to the suicide bombers, more than 60 percent also back a return to the diplomatic process, the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state and the removal of settlements in exchange for peace.

Sharon came to power in February 2001 after the failure of the Camp David talks and the outbreak of the second intifada. He promised both personal security and peace. So far, he has failed to deliver on either. He has presided over a sharply declining economy. Still, Sharon pulled 50 percent support in the latest polls. But potential challengers are jockeying for position on both the right and the left.

His only serious challenger on the right, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is considered the king of the Likud Central Committee, the body that nominates the party's candidates for national leadership.

Since his 1999 loss to Ehud Barak, Netanyahu has roamed the world making speeches (at $50,000 a pop) and cultivated the image of a ''new Netanyahu,'' less argumentative and more cooperative. It may be hard to convince anyone he's really changed, given his recent performance. With one rash move -- challenging a popular prime minister from his own party -- all of Netanyahu's old skeletons came tumbling out of the closet.

Still, Netanyahu is a master communicator. His strategy is to outflank Sharon from the right, not only declaring that there will never be a Palestinian state but also calling for the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the expulsion of Yasser Arafat.

Two candidates are competing for the chance to challenge Sharon from the left -- Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, also chairman of the Labor Party, and Labor Knesset member Haim Ramon.

Ben-Eliezer's advantages are that he has a military background and is well entrenched in the party. An Iraqi Jew from a working-class background, he can play the ''man-of-the-people'' card. No one ever called him articulate, however, and no amount of preparation will make him telegenic.

Ramon, a former minister of health, is a self-made man from a working-class family south of Tel Aviv. An effective populist speaker, Ramon proved his ability to win elections when he broke with his party in 1994 and ran as a reformer for secretary-general of Israel's huge trade-union federation. But he has no military background at a time when national security is on every voter's mind.

All the candidates realize the uphill battle they must wage to defeat a popular incumbent, and so they look for every weakness.

While Sharon has refused to publicly commit himself to any political program beyond the ''readiness to make painful compromises when the time comes,'' both Ben-Eliezer and Ramon are trying to sharpen their images with specifics.

Ben-Eliezer wants to renew negotiations from the point that was reached at Camp David, pushing for an eventual agreement that would include a plan for a Palestinian state encompassing all of Gaza and 95 percent of the West Bank.

Ramon is riding a popular wave of support for a unilateral withdrawal to defensible borders and the establishment of physical barriers between Israel proper and a future Palestinian state. Both say that Arafat has proved he cannot be a negotiating partner. But, if either is elected, it can be assumed that negotiations will resume with the Palestinian Authority.


Netanyahu hopes that the voters will have forgotten the sorry ending of his previous term in office and that his self-promulgated reputation as a tough-talking anti-terrorism expert will stand him in good stead.

The bottom line of Israeli politics today: It's personal security and economics, stupid. If the elections were held tomorrow, Sharon would win.

But if the suicide bombings continue and the economy deteriorates further, Sharon will become vulnerable to either Netanyahu on his right or to a left-wing candidate who can clearly articulate an alternative and convincing political vision.

Hillel Schenker is a Tel Aviv journalist.

©2002 The Los Angeles Times