Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu are locked in a match of political wills and wiles. Each, today, rightly believes that his political future will, to a large degree, be determined by how this match plays out.
Both Sharon and Netanyahu know that Sharon's request of Netanyahu to accept the position of foreign minister in the narrow coalition government Sharon now seeks to build is a calculated political move. If Netanyahu were to refuse Sharon's offer outright, he would open himself up to criticism as one who would bring down a right-wing government. If Netanyahu were to accept Sharon's offer outright, Sharon would have a year to transform Netanyahu's image from that of a legitimate contender for Likud leadership into that of an underling daring to defy his boss.
In giving Sharon his conditional agreement to serve as foreign minister, Netanyahu provided himself with what he considers necessary breathing room. Netanyahu explained to Sharon that he believes today, as he did two years ago, that the current makeup of a possible right-wing coalition with a total of 62 Knesset seats only 19 of which belong to the Likud renders the possibility of building a stable governing coalition impossible. Because of this, he agreed to Sharon's offer on condition the government they form be a transition government that will lead the country only until early elections are called.
Reasonable people can argue that Netanyahu's counter-offer is irresponsible. The argument is that under all circumstances, it makes no sense for the Likud to voluntarily risk, in elections, the loss of the power it now has.
Furthermore, the argument continues, according to the latest polls, a future Likud-led government would still necessarily rely on the same coalition partners – Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, the National Religious Party, Yisrael Ba'aliya, and the ultra-Orthodox parties. As a result, Netanyahu is wrong to argue, as he does, that elections will empower the Likud sufficiently to enable the party to enact radical economic reforms necessary to extricate the economy from the current deep recession.
If the current polling projections translate into actual election results, necessary measures including drastic slashing of transfer payments, massive government investment in infrastructure projects, significant tax decreases, and deregulation will be just as difficult to implement in the future as they are today.
At the same time, it is equally apparent that Sharon's behavior is problematic. If, until last Wednesday night, Sharon could justify his support for resuscitating the moribund Oslo process by claiming that it is a necessary sacrifice to ensure Labor's continued partnership in the unity government, such support makes no sense today.
As the leader of the opposition, the Labor Party today will oppose every action taken by the government against the Palestinian terror war on the grounds that it "kills" imaginary prospects for peace. Under this new reality, Sharon cannot justify not embracing the Likud's own view that security, rather than a peace agreement with a terrorist regime, is Israel's goal in fighting and emerging victorious from the present war.
And beneath the overlay of both politicians' personal interests, the strategic threats against Israel are gathering force. In the North, the Syria-Hizbullah-Iran axis is showing, through constant escalation, that it will not stop its provocations until Israel is sucked into another military operation in south Lebanon. Sunday's disclosure that the Lebanese are now dumping raw sewage into the streams flowing into the Jordan River is only the latest example.
The Palestinians have shown that they have no intention of reaching a cease-fire with Israel. Rather, it is clear that they, with the support of the Arab regimes, are vying for a post-Iraq war situation in which Israel will be forced by the US to pay a price for Arab non-intervention in that war by accepting the establishment of a PLO-run terror state in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip.
The conclusion of the current clash of the Likud titans is anybody's guess. But what is absolutely clear is that the stakes of this game couldn't possibly be any higher.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post