TEL AVIV — Besieged on all fronts, Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon pulled yet another political rabbit out of his hat this week, winning approval from the Likud party convention for his surprise proposal to submit his disengagement plan to a referendum among the Likud’s estimated 200,000 members.
But the convention victory was a limited one. Only 200 members of the 2,700-strong convention had even shown up for the meeting. The turnout was mute testimony to the prevalent feeling among Israelis that the prime minister is wounded, perhaps mortally. Sharon may have survived the convention, but only to die another political day.
The referendum idea, unprecedented in Israeli political history, was seen as a way for Sharon to circumvent the widespread opposition his disengagement plan has aroused within the convention and other top Likud bodies. The maneuver will allow him to bring the plan for ratification before the party rank and file, where support is expected to be higher than among Likud leaders.
In winning over the convention, Sharon was helped by a surge of support from the right in the last week, thanks to the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader, and rightist indignation over a prosecutor’s bid to indict the prime minister for bribery.
Internal party opposition is probably the least of the prime minister’s problems at the moment, though. Sharon is scheduled to meet President Bush in Washington on April 14 and present the disengagement plan to him, after which he has pledged to submit the plan for approval at home by the cabinet and the party. Should his right-wing coalition partners bolt from the government, as threatened, the prime minister vows he will move — “the same day,” he told hard-liners Monday — to form a new coalition, presumably with Labor.
But Sharon’s schedule was already upended by the time he made his threat, crippled by the news, leaked to the media Saturday night, that State Prosecutor Edna Arbel was about to call for Sharon’s indictment on bribery charges. Arbel’s boss, the newly appointed Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, formally received her recommendation on Monday. Police and prosecutors allege that Sharon received a bribe from real estate magnate David Appel in what has become known as the Greek Island Affair. Mazuz is expected to make the final decision within a few weeks on whether to file charges.
With the news of the looming indictment, Sharon’s plans have begun to unravel. Labor party leaders, including several who favor joining Sharon’s coalition in order to save the disengagement plan, promptly stated that they could not join the government as long as Sharon is under a legal cloud. Sharon and Labor chairman Shimon Peres had reportedly all but reached an agreement just days earlier on the conditions of the new coalition, including which ministries would be given to Labor (beginning with Peres himself returning to the Foreign Ministry). But this agreement will now be held on ice until Mazuz announces his decision. Should Sharon be brought to trial, which would likely force him to resign or suspend himself from office, all bets would be off.
The prime minister thus finds himself between a legal rock and a political hard place. Continuing leaks of evidence from the probe, including secret tapes shown on Israeli TV, have created a widespread impression that the case against him is indeed strong. That intensifies the pressure on Mazuz to indict. At the same time, Mazuz is said to be extremely wary of bringing charges unless he sees the case as airtight, fearing that if Sharon is charged, forced from office and then acquitted, a wave of resentment from the right would cripple the justice system.
For now, the nation and the prime minister are in limbo. Sharon, once embraced across the spectrum as the embodiment of Israeli consensus, is now viewed with suspicion by left and right alike. The parties of the right have reached the conclusion that the prime minister actually intends to remove settlements and withdraw from Gaza and northern Samaria, and are attacking his every move. National Religious Party leader Effi Eitam, Sharon’s minister of housing, declared this week that the prime minister’s legal situation ought to bar him from even presenting his plans to the Cabinet. By proceeding with a controversial initiative while under a legal cloud, Eitam told a party gathering that Sharon “is transgressing the rules of democracy.”
Much of the left, by contrast, suspects that Sharon does not intend to follow through on withdrawal, and is happy to withhold support for him until his legal future becomes clear. Entering a coalition now “will simply be impossible,” Labor lawmaker Avraham Shohat said on Israel Radio.
Worst of all for Sharon, some of his fiercest opposition is coming from his own Likud party as colleagues pile on their wounded leader. Just hours before the convention, veteran Likud lawmaker Michael Eitan charged that the party is being “tyrannized” by Sharon and his aides. “The convention is run by Sharon’s puppets,” Eitan told Israeli Radio. He said the party’s internal procedures had become “Bolshevik.”
Most members of the convention, the Likud’s highest decision-making body, are considered well to the right of Sharon’s latest positions, and in the past have greeted him with boos and whistles to protest his perceived drift leftward. This time, however, he expected a much warmer welcome: The killing of Yassin pleased many of the convention members, and the leak from the State Prosecutor’s office was regarded by them as just the latest proof that the justice system is a partisan tool of the left. But the sparse turnout transformed a planned show of support into a distressing scene for Sharon. He made a lukewarm speech, saying little of his plans or his legal troubles.
Conspicuous by his absence was the man in the wings, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, widely considered the heir apparent should Sharon be forced to resign, decided to prolong a visit to Europe, sidestepping the political minefield at home. Netanyahu has tentatively endorsed Sharon’s disengagement plan, sensing that if he steps into Sharon’s shoes he will have to carry out the plan or risk Washington’s wrath. But he is wary of alienating the Likud base by becoming too closely identified with the plan.
At the convention, Sharon was flanked by his two closest allies, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But Netanyahu’s absence was much more noticed than the presence of the Cabinet members at hand. Like everyone else, Bibi was waiting.