Everyone in the Israeli political establishment knows it's only a matter of time before Benjamin Netanyahu challenges Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party and the country.
But speculation is now rife that the challenge could come sooner than expected.
Though Netanyahu denies rumors that he intends to resign soon as finance minister to protest Israel's upcoming Gaza Strip withdrawal, he has stepped up his criticism of the plan, and some pundits are saying the former prime minister is preparing the ground for a leadership bid in the next few months.
The resignation rumors were triggered by Netanyahu's determination to push through major economic reforms ahead of the withdrawal, scheduled to begin Aug. 15.
Netanyahu's denials haven't dampened the rumors. The speculation is that as soon as the reforms are passed, Netanyahu will resign and devote himself full time to challenging for the party leadership.
He will be able to argue that he left the Treasury only after accomplishing what he set out to do, and that his resignation was over a matter of principle, pundits say.
The looming Likud leadership struggle has exacerbated tensions between Netanyahu and Sharon, as well as between Netanyahu and other leadership hopefuls, including Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
The disquiet at the top comes as the Likud is under fire for alleged corruption, with even Sharon and his sons under suspicion. Netanyahu, the pundits say, may feel that the next few months could be the best time for him to make his bid.
In early June, Netanyahu announced that he would vote against the withdrawal plan when it comes to the Cabinet for final approval. He cited recent comments by the Israel Defense Forces' outgoing chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, that the pullout likely will be followed by more and worse Palestinian terror.
"It will be interpreted by the Palestinians as Israel fleeing in the face of terror. Their conclusion will be that terror works, and that will encourage more terror," Netanyahu declared.
Comments by influential figures like Netanyahu and Ya'alon seem to be having an effect on public opinion, as surveys taken in recent weeks show a dramatic fall in support for the withdrawal.
The latest poll, published Friday in Yediot Achronot, showed 53 percent in favor and 38 percent against the plan, compared to 69 percent for and 25 percent opposed in February. That trend could encourage Netanyahu to make his leadership bid.
According to Ma'ariv political analyst Ben Caspit, Netanyahu and his close confidants discussed the resignation scenario a few months ago. No decision was taken at the time, but Netanyahu's recent conduct has fueled speculation that he intends to step down soon.
The clue for political observers, including some of Sharon's top advisers, was Netanyahu's insistence that separate pieces of legislation on banking and income tax reform, which normally would require a considerable amount of time, be passed in the next two months, and that next years' budget be passed in the Cabinet by the end of July, a month earlier than usual.
"Many political players have warned Sharon recently that Netanyahu is preparing a political ambush and does not intend to stay in the government much longer," Caspit writes.
Given Sharon's inherent distrust of Netanyahu's motives, relations between the two have been strained for months. An attempt at reconciliation in March at Sharon's ranch failed.
Netanyahu's relations with other prospective Likud leaders -- especially Olmert, who often speaks for Sharon -- aren't good either. During a public clash in mid-May over the future of public broadcasting in Israel, Olmert accused Netanyahu of deliberately manipulating budget figures and said he was unfit to be prime minister.
Netanyahu aides retorted that Olmert had grown desperate because he was "so unpopular in the Likud that his political career is probably over."
The subtext was plain: Netanyahu, in the view of Sharon and Olmert, is a dangerous rival who might very soon make a leadership move at their expense.
If Sharon, 76, were to retire -- pushed, say, by the failure of his withdrawal plan -- Netanyahu seems to be well ahead of his potential rivals in the race to inherit the Likud. A recent Ma'ariv poll on possible successors to Sharon shows Netanyahu getting 47 percent support among Likud Party members, with Mofaz a distant second at 33 percent, and both Olmert and Shalom trailing far behind.
When it comes to running against Sharon himself, Netanyahu's polls show him trailing by 10 percent to 12 percent, a gap he thinks can be closed in a good campaign, especially if there is trouble with the withdrawal or in its immediate aftermath.
Growing public criticism of alleged corruption in the Likud also could accelerate Netanyahu's plans. In mid-May, Ma'ariv editor Amnon Dankner and senior analyst Dan Margalit launched a campaign against corruption in public life, especially in the Likud.
In a front-page editorial titled, "You Have Gone Too Far," they wrote, "Enough. How much longer will we feel deeply ashamed of the people we have elected, how much longer will we harbor feelings of nausea and disgust at what the papers are reporting, scandal after scandal? How much longer will we rub our eyes and not believe what we are seeing?"
The shame and disgust referred mainly to Likud Cabinet ministers who gave dozens of jobs in their ministries to members of the Likud Central Committee, the body that chooses the party's candidates for Knesset.
Netanyahu has emerged from the new campaign unscathed. Sharon has not, both because he is party leader and because of questions over his son Omri's role in the Central Committee and his funding of Sharon's 1999 campaign for Likud leader. Netanyahu may feel that this is another element he can exploit against Sharon if he moves quickly.
Most political observers are predicting that national elections will be held in the first half of 2006, ahead of schedule.
Whether the Gaza withdrawal produces more stability or more terrorism probably will determine whether it's Sharon or Netanyahu heading the Likud in that ballot.Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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