October 22, 2004


His Great Obsession

By Yossi Verter
Haaretz, 22 October 2004

It was fascinating to hear the way Ariel Sharon's adversaries and his supporters talked about him this week. According to members of the Yesha Council of settlements, the prime minister is encased in a space of his own, cut off, almost a robot. "He's on Prozac," one of them said. Sharon's confidants spoke of a person who "looks neither to the right nor the left," who is in a mental bunker and is taking no interest in anything or dealing with anything apart from mustering a Knesset majority for his disengagement plan.

So there you are: for the first time, agreement has been reached between proponents and opponents. Both sides saw a man of 76, on the eve of the conclusion of his political career, who has known many disappointments and defeats and who, in the twilight of his life adopted a plan that is totally contrary to everything he said and preached his whole life. The plan, which Sharon was dragged into willy-nilly, has become his obsession. It has distanced friends who were by his side for a generation. It has wreaked havoc in the Likud, the party Sharon created. It is freaking out the entire political establishment, from one end to the other, and it could lead to Sharon's political demise. Or to his political resurrection.

Sharon spent most of his time this week putting out feelers to potential supporters and giving pep talks to others. He held a brief meeting with MK Shimon Peres, who emerged satisfied, according to sources close to the Labor Party chairman. Sharon apparently told him what he told other MKs he met with: that after the disengagement plan is passed by the Knesset he intends to start talks to expand the coalition. Others, though, ascribe to Sharon a different comment: that after the plan is approved the Likud rebels will calm down and go back to functioning as part of the faction. The National Religious Party will not leave the government, at least not in the coming months, and Sharon will be able to carry on with the current coalition until the end of the Knesset's winter sitting, next March, which will be the month of the cabinet votes on implementing the withdrawal from Gaza.

"Sharon wants to see how things look on Wednesday" - the day after the Knesset vote - "and then he will decide how to proceed," the prime minister's aides say. That's one way of saying that Sharon has no plan, no strategy. The main thing is to get the disengagement plan approved by the Knesset. After that, things will take their own course. It's very possible that the course they will take will lead to elections in mid-2005 or later next year. If it's up to Sharon, there will be no elections. There is nothing to be gained from elections now. He is not convinced that he will be elected Likud leader again if Benjamin Netanyahu decides to run against him. He knows he will have a hard time running an effective primaries campaign on a disengagement ticket, with the party split and torn between supporters and opponents of the disengagement plan. He knows that the next group of Knesset candidates that the Likud Central Committee will elect will make him nostalgic for the current crop.

"If we go to elections now, before disengagement, we will get 20 seats," said MK Michael Eitan in a meeting of the Likud Knesset faction on Monday. "How can I appear at an election rally together with Uzi Landau? What will I say to the people there?"

As usual, opinions are divided in Sharon's immediate vicinity. Some advisers are recommending that he go to elections now, precisely over the disengagement issue. Others would like to see him impose a new government on the Likud faction, one with Labor and the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) as partners. Still others are urging him to start forming a new party, a kind of all-inclusive center party, based on the vision known as the "big bang." Sharon is not keen on that idea. He finds it a bit fanciful, at his age, to embark on an adventure like that.

Shimon Peres this week made the following observation: "A moshavnik," he said, referring to a resident of a farming village, "never buys another house. He never buys more land. And he never goes to elections. Why? Because everything like that costs him money. Sharon is a moshavnik."

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