The Jerusalem Post, May. 3, 2004

ANALYSIS: SHARON DISENGAGES
FROM THE LIKUD

by Anshel Pfeffer

The Likud has never spurned its leader. From its early Revisionist origins in the 1920s, the party faithful always rallied around Jabotinsky, Begin, Shamir, and Netanyahu, no matter what. Dissenters were ostracized and eventually found themselves on the outside.

Ariel Sharon is different. After building a military and then a political career out of antagonizing his superiors, he is now doing the same thing to his supporters from the top of the pyramid.

Last night's results were the most striking example yet, but not the first. He has been defying the Likud's central committee in the same way almost since his elevation to party chairman in 1999. So far, it seems to have worked well for him.

Two years ago he defied the central committee that rejected his resolution in favor of a Palestinian state and went on to soundly beat Netanyahu's leadership challenge and lead the Likud to an overwhelming elections victory.

After yesterday's defeat it seems that Sharon is sticking to the same strategy. There's no question, he didn't spend 73 years clawing his way to the top just to resign after a small fraction of the 1.7 million people who voted personally for him three years ago, rejected a plan endorsed by the US president.

Sharon's aides were talking last night about the real referendum from their point of view, the clear majority in not only the Israeli public as a whole, but among the Likud's voters also, in favor of disengagement. They are predicting now a public backlash against the Likud of such a magnitude, that the same party members who yesterday were almost showing him the door, out of fear of losing power, will re-endorse him, disengagement plan and all.

Sharon's game plan now is to sit out the storm and wait for his party members to realize the hard electoral facts. Neither Uzi Landau, nor Nomi Blumenthal or Michael Ratzon, or any other Knesset member who opposed the plan, will bring in the votes that Sharon has. The leaders of the opposition camp in the Likud last night rushed to swear allegiance to the vanquished leader.

MK Gilad Erdan told The Jerusalem Post, "we haven't humiliated Sharon. Tomorrow, he will still be the prime minister, and with a more stable coalition. We appreciate what he did in asking the party."

The victors have no option but Sharon. Despite losing, the prime minister emerges with one tangible political gain.

He has effectively neutralized any high-profile challengers in the party. None of the prospective contenders is in a position to capitalize on Sharon's debacle, since they were all made to toe the line and support the program. Any hopes that Netanyahu might have entertained will have to be put on hold.

All that said, the referendum can on no account be considered a victory for Sharon. For the third time, his team ran a campaign in which Sharon's leadership was virtually the only selling point. In the 2001 and 2003 elections, it worked beyond their wildest dreams. Despite the negative polls, until last weekend they still believed that the leadership principle would kick in, and that the Likud rank and file would step back from the brink and not humiliate Arik.

Lior Horev, one of Sharon's main campaign advisors, admitted that the prime minister's image, in a referendum that he initiated, on the plan he devised, was the pivotal element and this time, "it failed."

Horev blamed the Likud members who "couldn't bear the burden of responsibility; they didn't want to be the ones to vote on removing Jews from their homes."

Sharon would have preferred having a general referendum, he said, but it would have taken too long to legislate. After last night, it seems that Sharon will try and give the public its choice all the same.