The ‘Big Bang’ Will Echo Here

According to the Israeli media, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had more on his mind in New York last week than just speaking at the United Nations.

After addressing the world body in Hebrew, Sharon switched to English to schmooze a group of wealthy American Jews, who attended a private event that was a thinly veiled fundraiser for the premier's coming re-election campaign.

As such, the event might generate yet another probe into Sharon's ethics. That's because the alleged $10,000 cover charge for the evening might have exceeded the legal limit of $7,800 that is set for contributions to a party primary campaign.

Such fundraisers held in the United States may appear unseemly, but they are so common as to be unremarkable. The fact that Sharon and his Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Labor Party leader (and Sharon coalition buddy) Shimon Peres view American Jewry as a vital source of campaign funds is not exactly news.

But what the kerfuffle over Sharon's fundraiser ought to remind us of is that Israel's leading political party may be about to implode.

For all of the focus on the goodwill that disengagement from Gaza has earned Sharon abroad, he has a big problem back home that may be beyond his capacity to solve. And American friends of Israel here ought to think seriously as to how much they want to intervene in the process that is about to unfold.

A large portion of the Likud Party faithful are angry about Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza, as well as by his decision to ignore the will of voters who shot down the plan in a party referendum. They are intent on forcing early elections, in which Sharon will be dumped from his perch as head of the party and forced from office. Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996-99 and served as Sharon's finance minister for the last three years, plans on returning to power, and the polls of Likud voters show that he's actually leading the prime minister.

A Pragmatist at Heart
Sharon may have founded the Likud as a coalition of various nationalist and centrist factions back in 1973, but there is no escaping the fact that he has never had the love of many of its activists.

Because Sharon became a symbol of Israel's right-wing to the world, it is often forgotten that he did not emerge from Israel's right wing. Rather, Sharon was a protégé of David Ben-Gurion. A pragmatist by nature, Sharon had opportunistically swung back and forth from the center-left to the center-right over the years until joining Israel's first non-Labor government under Menachem Begin.

That's an important point to recall, as Israeli pundits have speculated that Sharon will bolt Likud if Netanyahu bests him in a primary and then attempt to win re-election as a centrist candidate, possibly in coalition with some Laborites led by Shimon Peres.

Polls of the general public – as opposed to the Likud – hint that Sharon could win without Likud. This is the so-called "big bang" of Israeli politics that has been anticipated for years, and would mean the emergence of a viable centrist alternative to the left and right giants who have heretofore dominated the country's government.

It's far from clear that any of this will really happen, but the better question for American friends of Israel to ask themselves is what would it mean for the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Sharon might win without the Likud, but centrist parties always look good in Israeli polls and then fail at the ballot box. And the idea that Sharon can govern effectively without a major party of his own is questionable. But if Sharon winds up being replaced by Netanyahu, the implications will be serious.

The Gaza pullout may have been popular in Israel and abroad, but the reality of the postdisengagement facts on the ground may not make Sharon look good, especially to the right.

The unwillingness of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to disarm these gunmen and bombers is hardly a surprise.

But the vast increase in the Hamas arsenal following the withdrawal makes an autonomous Gaza even more of a threat.

All of which only reinforces a consensus among Israel's security forces that a new war of attrition by the Palestinians within the next year is more than likely to happen. Since Abbas appears unwilling to disarm the terrorists, the reality of a new conflict seems almost inevitable.

Waiting for the Next War
But that leaves the question of how America will react once the next war begins. Will President Bush give Sharon the green light to counterattack and destroy terrorist bases inside Palestinian cities as he did in 2002? If he does, Sharon and his plan will be vindicated. He will have earned American goodwill by leaving Gaza, and the Palestinians will have effectively precluded American pressure for more Israeli concessions though their violence.

But if Bush decides that the circumstances are different – either because of his inexplicable affection for the new Palestinian leader or his dislike for an Israeli who had ousted Sharon – then the equation may work out very much to Israel's disadvantage. And that is a thought that should weigh heavily on both Israelis and their friends abroad.

The position of both the United States and American Jewry on this or any Israeli election ought to be clear: respect for the process and for the results, no matter who wins.

Like it or not, Sharon's likely successors are bound by his commitments on Gaza. But the tricky thing about the corner Sharon has painted himself and the country into is that it is precisely Sharon's standing as a newly-minted peacemaker that will be the Jewish state's best card to play in a renewed conflict with the Palestinians.

There's no guarantee that Sharon can ensure that Bush will react appropriately to renewed Palestinian terror.

Nor is it certain that Netanyahu, who is widely disliked in Washington (in spite of the fact that this supposed hard-liner was himself the author of far-reaching concessions lamented by the right while he was in office), will be unable to fare much better.

Yet the bottom line of all of this speculation is that even though the alliance between these two great democracies is bigger than one person, Sharon has positioned himself as the indispensable man of the current situation.

The blowup of the Likud in the coming primary may be an event liberal American Jews, who were uncomfortable with nationalist ideology, have longed for. But if it does happen, the fallout for Israel will not be pretty.

Those Americans who are making campaign pledges – be they legal or illegal – to either Sharon or Netanyahu (who can always count on his circle of influential contacts in the Philadelphia region where he spent his boyhood to raise money) need to realize the stakes that Israel's voters are playing for remain enormous.

Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: [email protected]



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