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Sharon May Shuffle Cabinet, Rebuild Labor Coalition

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Sharon is facing growing political obstacles in his efforts to steer Israel along President Bush’s “road map” to peace, and insiders say he may soon be forced to reshuffle his Cabinet and reestablish a broad-based unity coalition with Labor.

Sharon’s moderate policies are meeting opposition not only from his right-wing coalition partners, the National Union and the National Religious Party, but also from within his own Likud party. Informal polls conducted among members of the Likud Knesset caucus show that a majority of Likud lawmakers oppose the road map. This week’s narrow Cabinet approval of the potential release of Palestinian security prisoners proved Sharon is in the minority among his party’s Cabinet ministers as well.

Sharon fired a warning shot across the bow of his critics and opponents this week by hurriedly inviting the Labor Party leadership for a “briefing” at the Prime Minister’s Office. Although the meeting did not explicitly discuss the possibility of a Cabinet reshuffle, Sharon’s message registered loud and clear across the political community: The prime minister has an alternative in waiting –– ready, willing and some say even eager to join him at the helm.

Sharon’s thinly veiled threat came after he narrowly avoided an embarrassing failure at last Sunday’s Cabinet vote, when a 10-to-10 tie among Cabinet ministers threatened to derail his plan for a very modest prisoner release aimed at bolstering the popularity of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. It was only through the forceful intervention of Justice Minister Yosef Lapid of Shinui that the measure finally won a 13-to-9 majority, after Lapid cajoled renegade Shinui minister Eliezer Zandberg to retract his nay vote. Lapid then introduced a qualifying condition that enabled some Likud ministers, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to support the prime minister’s proposal.

Still, despite Sharon’s political risks, the prisoner release decision fell far short of appeasing the Palestinians and may actually have weakened, rather than strengthened, Abu Mazen’s precarious position. Based on the recommendations of the Shin Bet General Security Services, and contingent on the Palestinians fulfilling their own security obligations, the Cabinet approved the release of some 350 prisoners out of a total of over 6,000. The Cabinet measure specifically excluded members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as other prisoners directly involved in terrorist attacks. The decision elicited howls of protest from the Palestinian side and subjected Abu Mazen to hails of criticism both from Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as from the ranks of his own Fatah movement.

Indeed, the decision to exclude Hamas and Islamic Jihad members from any prisoner release may have already started to unravel the so-called hudna, or cease-fire, between the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic organizations. Elements of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the first bombing that took place since the cease-fire was announced, an attack inside Israel proper in which an elderly women was killed and her three grandchildren were seriously wounded. Islamic Jihad threatened to continue its terrorist attacks and abandon the hudna if Israel does not reverse its restrictions on prisoner release.

Sharon and the top echelons of the security establishment recognize that the issue of prisoner release is Abu Mazen’s ultimate litmus test in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. Nonetheless, they are opposed to any wholesale release of convicted terrorists, and in any case are being held in check by a strong lobby, led by spokesmen for terrorist attack victims, who adamantly oppose any prisoner releases.

In certain key respects, officials acknowledge, the cease-fire has already begun to show results. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, long skeptical of the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to confront terrorists, confirmed this week that there has already been a noticeable reduction both in security alerts of impending terrorist attacks and in levels of anti-Israeli incitement in the Palestinian media. The Israeli public was also impressed by televised pictures of municipal workers in Gaza whitewashing city fences in order to erase graffiti slogans of support for suicide bombers.

The Palestinian steps came against the backdrop of a raging debate within the Israeli media over remarks ascribed to the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, who told the daily Yediot Aharonot last weekend that Israel had emerged with a clear “victory” over the Palestinians in the three-year-old intifada. Ya’alon was chastised by Mofaz, and his claim of victory was roundly criticized in the press as arrogant and inaccurate, or, at best, premature. Critics on the right pointed to the mere fact that Israel is being asked to “fuel” continued Palestinian collaboration in the road map process by the release of convicted terrorists as proof that Israel had not defeated the Palestinians, and at best achieved a stalemate.

Nonetheless, according to senior sources in the Defense Ministry, in order to maintain the momentum of Abu Mazen and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, Sharon and Mofaz will soon have no choice but to bite the bullet and order the release of prisoners, probably even beyond the scope authorized by the Cabinet this week. Such a development could precipitate the kind of Cabinet crisis that would lead to a reshuffling of the coalition, the sources said.

Lapid and Shinui are already pressing Sharon to preempt his critics and bring Labor into the Cabinet even before the expected crisis arrives. Emerging as Sharon’s main coalition bulwark in support of the prisoner release, Shinui also launched a groundbreaking effort to improve Abu Mazen’s stature in the eyes of Israeli public opinion, inviting the Palestinian leader and his ministers to come to the Knesset next week to plead their case for expanded prisoner release. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, an opponent of the road map process, has already given his reluctant approval for the planned visit of the Palestinian prime minister, though Rivlin’s office said the speaker probably would be unable to attend personally due to “scheduling conflicts.”

In private conversations, Lapid has urged Sharon to capitalize on the recent election of Shimon Peres as temporary chairman of the Labor Party and initiate coalition talks on reconstituting the Likud-Labor unity government. Peres is said to be eager to join the coalition but cannot initiate such a move for fear of antagonizing the already formidable internal opposition within Labor to a new broad-based government, led by outgoing party chairman Amram Mitzna. Labor insiders believe that a public overture by Peres could lead to an open split in the party. By contrast, coalition talks initiated by Sharon after he failed to garner a pro-peace majority in the Cabinet would probably keep the Labor rebels in line and the party intact.

Some Labor figures, including party secretary Ophir Pines, believe the government in its current makeup is the best possible vehicle for advancing the peace process because the participation of parties such as the National Union in the decision-making process ultimately stifles public protests against the road map process and allows Sharon to maintain the support of a commanding majority of public opinion. With Labor in tow, Pines and other Labor leaders believe, the right would be galvanized to launch mass demonstrations against Sharon and the government, and public discourse would once again be poisoned with the kind of vitriol that preceded Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995. But even Pines agrees that Sharon may already be living on borrowed time, and that a realignment of the political forces may be just around the corner.

Sharon is keeping his cards close to his vest and has made no statements indicating any intention to try to reshape his coalition. But Sharon’s aides believe he will not hesitate to invite Labor in, even at the cost of an open confrontation with the majority of his own Likud party.

In his meeting this week with Labor leaders, Sharon pledged to continue with the road map process and to “surprise” his critics on the left with his willingness to make “painful concessions” to the Palestinians. Former Labor minister Dalia Itzik, who has held numerous private conversations with Sharon in recent years, said sardonically after the meeting that Sharon has often promised to “surprise” her for the better, but his deeds usually surprise her for the worse. Only if Sharon genuinely maintains his current course, Itzik added, would she truly feel surprised.

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