How Sharon and Abbas Faced Leadership Challenges

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Why did Benjamin Netanyahu's challenge to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for Likud party leadership fail in Sunday's vote on moving forward the party's primaries?

Netanyahu miscalculated the mood in the party and its willingness to follow him — in all likelihood — out of government. Even with a weekend of violence from Gaza, Netanyahu still couldn't carry the day. Sharon's consistent argument has been that the old dreams of a Greater Israel — the original fire that molded the Likud — were impossible in the current political and diplomatic reality. Netanyahu had banked on being able to stir up the rowdiest nationalist elements in his party. But either he went too far, or he was successfully cast as having gone too far by his enemies. On Sunday night, Sharon was prevented from addressing the Likud Central Committee by an allegedly sabotaged sound system. Whoever caused that problem, Sharon's people immediately began circulating among journalists in the Tel Aviv hall, casting the prime minister as the victim of a persecution by elements in the party that aren't restrained by democracy or law. They argued that "Arik is the underdog" and that Israelis always back an underdog. In the end, the Likud committee members were shocked by this final assault on the dignity of their party. They decided they weren't ready to be the first people in Israeli history to kick a serving prime minister from their own party out of office.

Why did violence escalate so suddenly over the weekend, and what were the strategic objectives on each side of the escalation?

Hamas was busting for a fight, but felt itself restrained by its agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to maintain "calm" until the January parliamentary elections. When rockets being carried by Hamas men exploded during a parade last week in the Jabalia refugee camp, the resulting deaths had to be blamed on Israel — to avoid embarrassment and accusations of hurting the Palestinian people. That also afforded an excuse to hit Israel. Hamas pulled back after a few days and ordered its men to once again observe the truce, however, because it didn't want to be blamed by ordinary Palestinians for drawing the Israelis back into Gaza. On the streets of Gaza, there's a palpable air of celebration — with an undertone of aggression — and to spoil that would hurt Hamas's standing.

Israel's response was predictable. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon doesn't want to be drawn back into Gaza so soon after his withdrawal. But he promised many times that any trouble across the fence would meet with a stern response. It wasn't hard for Israel to carry out its "targeted killings" of senior militants over the weekend. After all, the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have spent years under cover, haven taken to the streets of Gaza since the Israelis left, making inviting targets.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to rein in the chaos. How is he doing on that score?

The Palestinian Authority is in terrible trouble. And not only from Hamas. Primarily its problem lies in the large numbers of gunmen nominally linked to the ruling Fatah faction of the PLO. Over the five years of the intifadeh, they've come to rule their villages, refugee camps, or towns as gangster fiefs. They were somewhat held in check by the money Yasser Arafat sent them. When Abbas took over as Palestinian leader after Arafat's death in November, he stopped the funds. That makes these groups dangerous and desperate. They've kidnapped foreign aid works and journalists to threaten the Authority. They've also become linked to infighting among top Palestinian Authority officials who've used them to intimidate or even assassinate rivals. It's the toughest issue facing Abbas, and one to which he seems to have little answer.