Likud Vote Changes Little in Mideast Equation

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Parlimentary maneuvering: Sharon and Netanyahu at a Knesset meeting

Israeli unity is unbreakable when there is a war to be waged, but it comes unstuck when there's a peace to be brokered. Nowhere is that more true than at the right-wing end of the country's political spectrum. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was dealt a cruel political blow by his own party early on Monday, when the Likud Central Committee rejected his pleas to consider the diplomatic consequences and voted almost unanimously to reject Palestinian statehood in the West Bank. Although the vote simply restated longstanding Likud policy, it was a calculated bid by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to unseat Sharon. Netanyahu's calculation: The vote will make Sharon's job more difficult because he has to deal with the political and diplomatic reality that Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza is endorsed not only by the United States and the entire international community (the exceptions being those regimes that deny Israel's right to exist). The latest polls show statehood is also accepted by upward of 70 percent of Israeli voters as part of a final peace agreement. But Netanyahu's objective right now is neither to advance negotiations with the Palestinians nor even to win an election; it's simply to ensure that he, rather than Sharon, is Likud's next candidate.

Sharon had been selected as party leader simply as a caretaker following Netanyahu's 1999 drubbing at the hands of Ehud Barak. Ironically, it was right-wing defections from Netanyahu's own government that had forced that election. Eighteen months later, a crafty parliamentary trick by Barak allowed Sharon rather than the preferred Netanyahu to be the party's candidate in a new election — Netanyahu was precluded from standing under the rules governing that particular election because he was not a member of the Knesset at the time. (Barak believed his own chances were better against Sharon than against Netanyahu.) Since then, the robustly ambitious Netanyahu has kept up his campaign to reclaim what he considers his rightful place from Sharon, most recently in Monday's Central Committee vote.

Not that Netanyahu would necessarily do things that differently from Sharon if he were faced with the realities of power. An editorial in Maariv suggested he doesn't even believe that a Palestinian state can be stopped. And Netanyahu's own record in power, moreover, suggests he knows the score: Elected as a fierce opponent of the Oslo accords, he was nonetheless forced, as prime minister, to observe it — by withdrawing from Hebron, for example — while Sharon snapped at his heels from the right. It is an unwritten rule of Israeli politics that no prime minister can afford to defy Washington for any length of time, and Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza is no longer even up for discussion in U.S. foreign policy — never mind in the Arab world where Israel must ultimately seek peace partners.

Still, the terms of Palestinian statehood are less likely to be determined at a Likud party conference than among the international players looking to resolve the conflict. And some Israeli commentators even suggested that the Likud vote could strengthen Sharon's hand by painting him as a moderate before the international community, and also deepening his appeal among Israeli voters by making Netanyahu look reckless. The hard-core Likud base alone, after all, is not enough to get anyone voted prime minister in the election that's scheduled for next year.

Washington lost no time in emphasizing that the Likud vote has not changed the fact that Palestinian statehood remains the endpoint of the diplomatic process. And despite his setback, Sharon appears to have won a measure of sympathy from Bush for his insistence that negotiations over Palestinian statehood have to be preceded by moves to end violence and by reforms inside Arafat's administration. His diplomatic standing will have been further enhanced by his acceptance of Washington's quiet pressure to show restraint on invading Gaza in response to last week's bombing at Rishon Letzion.

And if Sharon is in trouble with his political base, Arafat can expect an even rougher ride. He's being pressed hard to reform his administration from both the moderate Arab regimes and his own constituents. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have in recent days reportedly been applying pressure on Arafat's aides for a strong crackdown on terrorism — the Saudis and Egyptians have also been working to draw Syria, which has traditionally backed Palestinian "rejectionists," into a new peace initiative, and leaders of the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations have reportedly been summoned to Saudi Arabia to be urged to end suicide bombings. The Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza want Arafat to get rid of the men around him, end corruption and create an administration more responsive to their needs. But that population is also deeply angry at the PA for failing to protect them from the Israeli offensive. A planned visit by Arafat to the devastated Jenin refugee camp was called off Monday, for security reasons. Thousands of Palestinians had reportedly been waiting to greet him. But their mood was hard to gauge.