Few people ever would have believed that Ariel Sharon could be accused of being soft on the Palestinians, but such charges are the linchpin of a comeback strategy by his Likud party rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"No day passes in which an Israeli is not killed," Mr. Netanyahu told the Likud's central committee Sunday night in what appeared to be a calculated bid to launch a challenge to Mr. Sharon. "Restraint has not brought us [international] goodwill, only escalation and international pressure."
Sharon, heckled frequently, retorted that the national unity as embodied in the government he forged four months ago with the Labor Party - whose leaders have thus far opposed a major military offensive - is the key to defeating the Palestinians.
The burgeoning battle in Likud, though based on internal rivalries and intrigues, could have far-reaching effects on Israel's policies. Judging from their behavior Sunday night, and the assessments of analysts here, a clear majority of the central committee favors Netanyahu's approach. Analysts and legislators predict Sharon could be pushed into further military action as he seeks to cover his flank and win back the support of these party activists.
Less than a year after surviving a corruption investigation, Netanyahu is reemerging at a particularly delicate moment for the Middle East. It is bracing for a possible large-scale Israeli military action against the Palestinian Authority that, moderates fear, could escalate into a regional war. One devastating suicide bombing by Palestinian militants could be enough to tip the delicate balance in Israel's Cabinet and set off a tragic chain of events.
Enter Netanyahu, who, according to Israeli analysts, is motivated much more by a desire to return to power than by principle. Such a return would become more immediate if the Sharon-led national unity government were to unravel, setting the stage for new elections in two years.
Netanyahu has been injecting an explosive dynamic into Israeli political discourse by suggesting that the government lacks the will to crush terrorism and is beholden to Labor leaders. As part of his move to the extreme right, he has in recent weeks disavowed some of his own actions as prime minister, including the 1997 Hebron agreement in which his government ceded land to the Palestinian Authority. A key Knesset ally, Yisrael Katz, went further, seeking to introduce legislation annulling the 1993 Oslo Agreement, which Netanyahu's government inherited from the Labor party and grudgingly endorsed.
Clearly on the defensive at the meeting, Sharon derided pro-Netanyahu hecklers, saying: "You people can shriek all you want, while I'll take care of combatting terrorism. That's the difference between us."
He then took the surprising step of rattling off a string of assassinations of Palestinians carried out by Israeli forces, trying to prove his government is, after all, tough on terrorism. "A cell in Bethlehem that wanted to launch an attack: It is gone. A cell in Tamun village: gone. When the Hamas leader in Tulkarem wanted to carry out an attack, he was finished off. Another in Jenin: wiped out."
"What about Arafat?" shouted Netanyahu supporters. Sharon ignored them.
In fact, Sharon oversaw a sharp escalation in military actions against the Palestinians, and his government has earned a series of rebukes from human rights organizations. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - perhaps the region's leading moderate - said last week that "it is evident that with Sharon there is no solution. He is a man who knows nothing but killing, strikes, and war."
Sharon's government has substantially stepped up Israeli incursions into Palestinian Authority areas, using F-16 warplanes to bomb targets in Palestinian towns after an April attack in the Israeli city of Netanya, and has been responsible for massive house demolitions in the Gaza Strip that have left hundreds of refugees homeless.
Israeli forces now routinely respond to gunfire attacks with heavy shelling from tanks. In the Gaza Strip, they have killed civilians with tank shells filled with flachettes, or deadly darts - an irony, since Israeli officials frequently deride Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, for filling its bombs with nails. Only two weeks ago, Sharon's Cabinet approved an expansion of the policy of assassinations of Palestinians deemed terrorists. And a stranglehold on movement in the occupied territories that has paralyzed economic and all other aspects of life remains in place despite repeated promises by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that it would be eased.
At the same time, Sharon earned a degree of credit from the international community - and inadvertently created an opening for Netanyahu - by not responding with a military campaign to bombings by Palestinian militants, including one in July in Tel Aviv that left 21 Israelis dead, and another last week that killed two soldiers in the town of Zichron Ya'acov.
He also agreed to the US-brokered cease-fire that took effect June 16, and which is now teetering amid continued bloodletting. Frequent attacks on Jewish settlers despite the cease-fire have caused political damage to Sharon among the right-wingers, and Netanyahu has taken pains to make publicized visits to the families of victims.
Sharon continues to enjoy a very high approval rating, including among centrist and even left-wing voters. A recent Gallup poll showed that out of 500 respondents, 55 percent were satisfied with Sharon and 35 percent unsatisfied.
But Reuven Rivlin, the communications minister and a close ally, says Sharon needs to take the views of the party activists into account.
"He is attached to his strategy, but he knows well that the source of his ability to remain prime minister is the support of the right people," he says.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi says the Likud rivalry is alarming.
"Netanyahu is vying with Sharon to commit even greater atrocities," she said. "It is extremely dangerous and alarming that the agenda in Israel has been hijacked by extreme racist parties and that the competition in Israel is to win the hearts and minds of such extremists."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor