Sharon Faces Tough Choices After Defeat

Bruised after a humiliating defeat in his own party, Ariel Sharon is considering dramatic moves to regain the political upper hand.

But pundits are divided over whether the Israeli prime minister has the strength to extricate himself from the political quicksand in which he seems to be sinking.

On the one hand, the Bush administration insists that Sharon ignore the clear Likud Party message and deliver on his promise to pull Israeli troops out of the Gaza Strip, evacuating Jewish settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank.

Sharon, too, still believes his unilateral disengagement plan from the Palestinians is the best strategy for Israel right now. But his opponents within Likud say Sharon should abide by the party’s rejection of the plan by a 3-2 margin in a referendum Sunday.

Sharon has two major choices: change the plan or change the forum. Initially, he seemed to be gravitating toward the first option, but his confidants were not ruling out other possibilities. Whatever he decides, Sharon will face major political difficulties.

In a carefully worded statement, Sharon said he deeply regretted the outcome of the Likud vote but hinted that he intended to press ahead.

"The Israeli people did not elect me to sit with my arms folded for four years," he declared. "I was elected to find a way to bring this nation peace and quiet … and I will continue to lead Israel according to my understanding, my conscience and my public duty."

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s main political backer on disengagement, was more explicit, saying flatly that the plan would not be dropped because of the Likud vote.

Disengagement from the Palestinians is the only way to solve Israel’s security, economic and demographic problems, Olmert said. The challenge is to find a way to proceed with the plan without causing a split in the party, he said.

The dilemma for Sharon is acute. He has a number of options, all of them difficult.

He could drop or alter the plan, in line with the Likud vote, or he could try circumvent his party by getting the plan approved as is in the Cabinet and Knesset.

If he fails to muster a majority in the present government, Sharon could try to form a new coalition with the opposition Labor Party — which supports disengagement — ejecting the right-wing National Religious Party and National Union bloc that oppose it.

Sharon also could call a nationwide referendum, in which current polls show he would win a comfortable majority. But none of these alternatives would be easy to pull off.

If Sharon drops the plan, he will run into trouble with the Bush administration, which took a political risk to bolster Sharon by recognizing some Israeli claims in the West Bank and rejecting a "right of return" to Israel for Palestinian refugees.

In an initial bid to satisfy the Americans and win Knesset and Cabinet support, Sharon assigned Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to work on an abridged version, in which Israel would evacuate only part of Gaza and possibly no settlements in the West Bank. Whether such a limited withdrawal would win American and international approval is an open question, and it could even fail to win the support of dissident Likud ministers.

Sharon is in a serious bind. If he dilutes the plan, he faces possible international opposition, and if he doesn’t dilute it, he won’t be able to get it through the Cabinet.

Therefore, his confidants have been intimating that the prime minister has something more dramatic in mind. But even if he decides to break up his present coalition and bring in Labor to replace the right-wing parties, it may not be easy to persuade Labor to join.

Until Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decides whether to indict Sharon on corruption charges, Labor is wary of entering the prime minister’s coalition. Moreover, given Sharon’s predicament, Labor now sees a chance for new elections in which it could make gains at Likud’s expense.

Labor leader Shimon Peres has called for new elections, saying Labor should run on the disengagement ticket. Peres said Likud has shown itself incapable of pushing through the potentially historic plan, and Sharon should accept responsibility for its failure.

Labor Knesset member Eitan Cabel has proposed a bill to dissolve the current Knesset. If it passes, it could lead to early elections within 60 days.

As for a national referendum, that would require complicated legislation. Labor’s Isaac Herzog has proposed a referendum bill but getting it through could take time. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s attempt to legislate a referendum took two years, and it was never completed.

Given these obstacles, Sharon could precipitate elections himself, a move that might even lead to a split in Likud. Pundits talk about a strong centrist bloc — composed of Likud, Labor and Shinui — running together on a disengagement ticket.

According to this scenario, the pragmatists in Likud would follow Sharon, while the right-wing ideological core, including the settler-oriented "Jewish Leadership" group led by Moshe Feiglin, would break away.

The formation of a strong, secular, centrist grouping, including Labor and Likud, is what pundits for years have been calling the "big bang" of Israeli politics.

Sharon’s defeat Sunday also leaves Israel’s foreign policy in tatters: Ties with the United States are strained, the Europeans are highly critical and the chances of a political settlement being imposed from the outside are higher. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said he hoped Sharon’s defeat would lead Israel back to the negotiating table.

Sharon’s fear is that the international community now will see both Israel and the Palestinians as rejectionists and will try to impose a peace deal on them. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, speaking for the Europeans, declared that 50,000 Likud voters can’t be allowed to hold the entire international community hostage.

Given the far-reaching implications, how did Sharon lose a vote that, if successful, would have given him enormous political power?

For one thing, he underestimated the settlers’ influence on the Likud’s rank-and-file membership. The settlers mounted a huge, energetic and costly campaign, sending young people all over the country to influence voters. By contrast, Sharon’s side, which feared violating funding rules, mounted almost no campaign whatsoever.

Sharon confidants boast that no one is as good as Sharon when under pressure. They also claim that he has a Houdini-like capacity to emerge intact from seemingly impossible situations.

That may be, but Sharon will need all his skills over the coming weeks. He cannot afford any more mistakes. This time, his political survival is at stake.