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Sharon, Netanyahu Maneuver As Election Battle Looms

TEL AVIV — Although Israel’s disengagement from Gaza wasn’t scheduled to begin for another week and a half, the political circus known as the Day After Disengagement had its informal kickoff this week with the submission of the government’s 2006 budget proposal.

It was a budget notably short on the draconian cuts for which Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become known, and it was delivered wrapped in a lot of talk about compassion and helping the weak. It was, to most observers, an election-year budget, the surest sign yet that Prime Minister Sharon will be forced into new elections soon after the six-week disengagement is completed.

By tradition, the first draft of a budget proposal is filled with hefty service cuts aimed at balancing the books and boosting the economy. Finance Ministry officials insert as many cuts as possible, knowing that many will not survive the political horse-trading to come. The sole exception to the rule is when the minister in charge senses an election coming.

But this week’s budget included only modest cuts, most of them in defense rather than social services. Budget proposals include reducing military service by half a year, lowering the price of airline tickets and easing work rules for yeshiva students — all in the name of boosting the economy, of course. Netanyahu denied that the draft was aimed at scoring points with voters, but with elections now expected as soon as the end of this year, the conclusion was nearly inescapable.

Netanyahu is widely considered a success at his job, but compassion is not considered one of his strong suits. He is, in fact, regularly attacked for lack of compassion, both by members of the opposition and by senior members of his own Likud Party. He knows all too well that Sharon, whom he plans to challenge for leadership of the Likud and the nation, would not hesitate to present Netanyahu as a heartless number cruncher, an architect of economic moves that have pleased the business elite and world markets but left many of Israel’s weaker citizens behind.

This will be a key front in what promises to be a gargantuan battle for the country’s leadership. Most people believe that it will begin the moment the last soldier leaves Gaza. Sharon has survived the past year only because he held on to his so-called disengagement coalition, consisting mostly of his political enemies — he passed one crucial Knesset vote only with the help of leftist and Arab lawmakers. This coalition will cease to exist the moment withdrawal is completed. At that point, his onetime allies on the right will demand his head.

Netanyahu has been playing a complex political game, trying to disengage himself from Sharon without giving the prime minister reason to fire him. Several of his advisers would prefer to have him sit out the upcoming contest by declaring that he will not oppose the 77-year-old Sharon – which would make him his immediate successor. But Netanyahu seems bent on a head-on confrontation with Sharon, who trounced him in the 2003 primaries.

Sharon’s main weapon will be his ability to draw centrist and even left-wing voters after proving that he can lead Israel through the complex and painful withdrawal. To Likud voters, he simply will promise to bring them a larger victory — meaning more seats in Knesset and larger spoils to divide among the faithful. Netanyahu’s people responded recently with a new poll, according to which he would bring Likud almost as many Knesset seats as Sharon would. Netanyahu’s fate in the primaries may hinge on his ability to convince the party that this is indeed correct.

A Netanyahu primary victory — and at this point, he still seems to be the underdog — then would raise a larger riddle: What would Sharon do next? It is highly unlikely that at his age, and after five years at the helm, he would agree to be second to Netanyahu. Barring that, the long-awaited big bang in Israeli politics — predicted for close to a decade by the likes of Labor Minister Haim Ramon — would seem closer than ever. Sharon, according to this scenario, could leave Likud with a substantial number of followers and join hands with Shinui’s Yosef Lapid and Labor’s Shimon Peres — the average age of the trio is just under 80 — to form a new power, far from the extremism of Likud under Netanyahu and the defeated state of the Labor Party.

At the moment, this scenario still seems improbable. What is certain is that smart observers on all sides of the political map view a post-disengagement election as a complete certainty. Every statement uttered, every step taken during the coming months will be judged as preparation.

Meanwhile, Peres remains the one constant of Israeli politics, as he has been for more than half a century. In the past weeks, Labor’s octogenarian chairman has been hotly courted by his most bitter rivals within the party, particularly Ehud Barak, the once and would-be prime minister. Barak, after insisting for months that Israel was just waiting for his return, seems to have realized of late that he is far behind and that he would benefit from postponing the Labor primaries until after disengagement. He recently proposed canceling the primaries altogether and electing a new Labor chairman in the 4,000-member party convention. This is widely interpreted as a sign of panic. Now, Barak and several other Labor contenders — ex-generals Matan Vilnai and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer — are calling for an age-old solution: Let Peres (who else?) stay on as chairman for a specified period of time, which would include the coming, unwinnable elections.

Peres, who is no doubt enjoying the commotion, has yet to agree.




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