Biggest test for Sharon expected to come after Likud vote

The Israeli prime minister is set to be reelected as party leader Thursday.

Ariel Sharon is well on the way to being reelected as Israel's prime minister.

For one thing, Mr. Sharon seems to have vanquished his most formidable internal critic, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Polls and political analysts predict that Mr. Sharon will defeat Mr. Netanyahu in a party election Thursday for the leadership of Israel's Likud bloc.

A telegenic politician once considered a serious threat to Sharon, Netanyahu is watching his campaign for party leader fizzle. Likud members, says Daniel Ben Simon, a political writer for the Ha'aretz newspaper, are being forced to choose between "the most patriotic figure" in the party - Sharon - and "the most charismatic one." Patriotism appears to be winning. "It's amazing how the magic of Netanyahu has dwindled," Mr. Ben Simon says.

The pollsters and analysts seem just as certain that Likud will emerge as the dominant party in a national election set for Jan. 28, meaning that Sharon will have the opportunity to form Israel's next government.

What happens after that is a good deal murkier. Sharon has presided over a broad coalition, including Likud's longtime rival, the Labor Party, for most of his premiership. Last week, Labor elected a new leader - Amram Mitzna, a former general and the mayor of Haifa - who says he is not inclined to join a government led by Sharon.

For the first time since Sharon came to power in March 2001, says Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan, "a leading Israeli politician is looking the Israeli people in the eye and saying 'I'm giving you a credible alternative.' "

Mitzna is promising to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip should he become prime minister, although the conventional political wisdom says Labor will win far fewer seats in parliament than Likud. Mitzna is also promising to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians in spite of continuing violence. Sharon has long insisted that violence must cease before talks can begin.

If negotiations fail, Mitzna says, he will unilaterally "disengage" Israel from the Palestinians, although he dodges questions on just how he would do so.

"I bring a new hope," Mitzna told foreign reporters Monday, describing his approach. "And I hope this ... will drive also the Palestinians to take steps, to do something, to stop terrorism."

Mitzna easily defeated Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who served as defense minister under Sharon, in the Labor leadership election last week. The result was clear evidence that Labor stalwarts are tired of being part of a "unity" government, no matter how grave the crises facing the country. But there is little indication so far that Mitzna's approach will win broad support among Israelis.

Recent polls indicate Labor will take 20 or 21 seats in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset. Likud may get as many as 38, the polls suggest.

In the meantime, Netanyahu is fighting hard for the leadership. He says the country is in "despair," promises "solutions," and criticizes Sharon for backing the idea of a Palestinian state, a prospect that right-wing Israelis oppose. Even so, many observers are skeptical about Sharon's commitment to the idea, and note that Sharon's idea of a Palestinian state is hardly one that many Palestinians are likely to accept.

But Netanyahu's attempt to unseat Sharon is considered unseemly.

"You don't attack a prime minister from your own party," says Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, stating a political tenet held by many Likud members.

Netanyahu's campaign seems to remind Israelis of things they don't like about him. For many people, "it's the same old Bibi," says Mr. Sandler, using Netanyahu's nickname, explaining that he seems too media savvy and overly interested in power.

With the polls indicating favorable outcomes for Sharon this week and Likud in January, some of the speculation has already turned to the aftermath of the election.

Mitzna says the country is ready for a sharp debate on strategies for dealing with the conflict with the Palestinians, but only time will tell. "More and more people are joining me every day," he insists.

Mitzna's gamble - offering Israelis a "new hope" - cuts both ways for the Likud, says Mr. Hazan. He says that most Likud members are backing Sharon partly because they believe he can reforge a unity government, but if a unity government seems unlikely, they may swing to Netanyahu, who is considered uninterested in such a coalition.

On the other hand, Likud members may back Sharon because they believe he will appeal to centrist Laborites who are unwilling to go along with Mitzna - on the theory that a Likud led by Sharon ultimately will bring the party more seats in the Knesset.

Mr. Ben Simon says the stark alternatives are temporary: "The lines are being drawn in a polarized way, but a day after the election you will see the amazing pressures to come together."

Israelis, he says, "want two clear voices. On the other hand, they want these two voices to work together."

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