Sharon faces challengers from both
sides in election
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
candidates realize the uphill battle they must wage to defeat
a popular incumbent, and so they look for every weakness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
line of Israeli politics today: It's personal security and
economics, stupid. If the elections were held tomorrow, Sharon
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.
Schenker is a Tel Aviv journalist.
The Los Angeles Times