Netanyahu’s Lead Narrows

TEL AVIV — Two weeks ago, when resigning finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a direct leadership challenge to Prime Minister Sharon, early polls had him leading by close to 17% among the Likud Party members, who will select the party’s candidate for the next elections. Sharon’s situation seemed hopeless, but his associates kept saying they had hope. Give him enough time, they said — taking care not to be identified — and Netanyahu will make a mistake. He always does.

Sharon is fond of denigrating Netanyahu’s ability to exercise self-control, to the point of casting doubt on his ability to lead Israel. “When he was prime minister,” Sharon said of Netanyahu during a Channel 10 Television interview, “I saw some things I considered dangerous. He is panicky and tends to fold under pressure. This job requires nerves of steel.”

While Sharon’s remarks were generally taken as just another salvo in the ongoing war of words between the two, most observers agree that Netanyahu has shown a tendency more than once in the past to misjudge political situations and to act hastily and nervously. The past few days have been no exception.

This time, Netanyahu’s mistake was pushing too hard for an earlier date for the party primary elections, currently set for April 2006. Netanyahu was demanding that the primaries be moved to this coming November. He firmly rejected attempts at compromise, led by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat, who proposed an agreed date in February 2006.

In holding firm, Netanyahu appears to have overreached. Likud members, though angry with Sharon for disregarding their decision in a party referendum rejecting the Gaza disengagement, thought Netanyahu was being stubborn about the primaries. Perhaps more to the point, a Sharon loss in the primaries would inevitably mean the collapse of his Knesset majority and early elections — and as the polls of the general electorate show, a Netanyahu-led Likud could lose almost a half of its 40 seats in the Knesset. Party members may have wished to punish Sharon, but few, particularly among the leadership, were eager to give up their comfortable parliamentary situation so soon.

Netanyahu’s miscalculation was confirmed this week in a new poll of registered Likud primary voters. The poll, conducted this week by Ha’aretz — the same newspaper, employing the same polling company, that had published the earlier poll showing Netanyahu with a 17% lead — showed that Netanyahu’s lead dropped from 47-30 to 44-38, narrowing his margin by nearly two-thirds in less than two weeks’ time. Moreover, 52% of polled Likud members said they were against moving up the party primaries.

This is exactly Sharon’s plan: Buy time, hoping for more Netanyahu mistakes, and a better chance to instill in the minds of Likud members the notion that he alone can lead them to a comfortable electoral triumph. The prime minister took care to remain vague about his plans should he lose the primaries, defying demands that he promise to stay in the party. Thus he kept alive the prospect that he could leave the Likud and form a new centrist bloc, powerful enough to deny the party victory on Election Day.

In the meantime, everyone around Sharon in the Likud is veering sharply to the right. Meeting with Likud mayors this week, Sharon promised that “there will be no more unilateral withdrawals. We need to build in the settlements rather than talk about it — and that’s exactly what we do.”

The main battleground is the traditional theater of such wars: Jerusalem. Early steps, taken right after disengagement, toward extending the security fence eastward to include the large settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim — and follow this up with construction of thousands of new apartments in the area — met with a sharply negative American response. Sharon’s main political ally, Vice Premier (newly appointed Finance Minister) Ehud Olmert, quickly reiterated that Sharon doesn’t mean to build there — for now. “The State of Israel has committed itself to freeze the building. As such we would be acting in an irresponsible manner if we would do otherwise,” Olmert told The Jerusalem Post.

Netanyahu pounced. He quickly arranged a tour of the area, spoke of the importance of building and accused Sharon of not doing enough. This proved to be another mistake: Not only did Netanyahu seem too eager to go back to the mantra that helped him win the 1996 elections over another foe (one campaign slogan that year was “Peres will divide Jerusalem”), but the universal response only stressed the backing and admiration Sharon enjoys in Washington and elsewhere after the evacuation of Gaza.

No doubt the maneuvering will continue in the coming weeks, building up toward the September 26 Likud Central Committee meeting, where the date of the primaries should be determined. Pressures continue within the Likud to expand West Bank settlements, potentially creating tensions with Washington and embarrassing Sharon. This week the Cabinet approved the construction of 117 new apartments in Ariel, a town of 20,000 between Ramallah and Nablus that Sharon has vowed to keep in any future accord. Palestinians have said it would cut their state in half. The State Department said it had held “diplomatic exchanges” with Israel on the decision.

For all his mistakes, Netanyahu still enjoys a healthy lead; Sharon still has an uphill climb. But the first week of this battle, the most fascinating the Israeli political scene has witnessed in many years, showed that Sharon still has few tricks up his sleeve, that Netanyahu is still his own worst enemy — and that nothing can be taken for granted.

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Netanyahu’s Lead Narrows

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