Ariel Sharon has been weighing the options for his government and "disengagement plan" since his humiliating defeat at last week's Likud Party convention, but none of the alternatives looks particularly good.
Formally, the convention merely voted against continuing coalition talks with the dovish Labor Party. But the subtext of the vote was clear: Hawkish party members are intent on preventing the Israeli prime minister from going ahead with his plan to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank next year.
In the wake of the vote, Sharon retired to his farm to consider his next move. There are no easy options.
- Stumble on with the minority government he now has, but that would make carrying out the disengagement plan virtually impossible.
- Continue coalition negotiations with Labor in defiance of the Likud convention decision, but that almost certainly would draw fierce opposition in both parties.
- Try to build a stable coalition with the fiercely secular Shinui Party and the ultra-Orthodox parties, a daunting task.
- Bring in the ultra-Orthodox and the far right instead of Shinui or Labor, which likely would be the final blow to Sharon's disengagement plan.
If there's no simple route to beef up his shaky coalition, precipitating early elections won't be easy for Sharon either. Given the current turmoil in Likud, Sharon wouldn't be sure of winning the party nomination for prime minister.
If he splits the party to run at the head of a centrist alliance composed of Likud breakaways, Labor and Shinui -- a realignment so profound that pundits have labeled it the "big bang" of Israeli politics -- Sharon would be embarking on a political adventure, the results of which no one can foresee.
Should Sharon decide to persist with his minority government, he first would have to shore up his position in his own party. That would entail making deals with Likud strongmen like Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. For a proud man like Sharon, that would be the ultimate humiliation -- not to mention the fact that neither prospective ally is enamored of the disengagement plan.
Shalom has said he will help Sharon push the plan through, but the trade-off for his support would probably be further modification of the plan and vacillation.
Moreover, if the government votes next March, as scheduled, to begin evacuating settlers from Gaza, the four National Religious Party members who still support Sharon will bolt, leaving the prime minister with a coalition of only 54 in the 120-member Knesset, and an opposition threatening to topple him at any moment over a host of issues.
Sharon's preferred government remains a national unity coalition with Labor. The first thing he did after retiring to his farm was to send a message to Labor leader Shimon Peres, saying that he wanted to continue coalition talks, the Likud vote notwithstanding.
The next day, Peres convened a news conference to announce that he was no longer interested, that instead he would press for early elections and that he would be Labor's candidate for prime minister.
The idea was to soften up Sharon's Likud opponents who don't want elections any time soon, but Peres may have overplayed his hand: His announcement that he would run as Labor's candidate for prime minister sparked a minirebellion in his own party.
About a dozen Labor legislators, led by Matan Vilnai and Binyamin Ben Eliezer, came out against any further talks with Likud and against Peres as the party's automatic choice for prime minister.
They demanded that the coalition negotiating team change its function and start preparing the party for new elections. They also insisted that a date be set soon for primaries to elect Labor's candidate for prime minister.
Peres countered by dismissing the rebellion as a tempest in a teacup. More significantly, he changed his tack on national unity: The coalition negotiations with the Likud, he said, were almost wrapped up, with far-reaching agreements already achieved on key political and economic issues.
Despite what he had said at his earlier news conference, Peres left no doubt that he intended to resume coalition talks with Sharon. But will Sharon and Peres, the grand old men of Israeli politics, with all their proven political skills, be able to outmaneuver the rebels in their respective parties?
If not, Sharon could try for a coalition with Shinui and the ultra-Orthodox. But Shinui is insisting that the ultra-Orthodox agree to a form of civil marriage and a military draft of yeshiva students, demands they reject out of hand.
Instead of Shinui, Sharon could bring back the far-right National Union bloc and the two dissenting National Religious Party legislators, building a solid 69-member coalition. But that would mean abandoning disengagement altogether, sparking a potential showdown with the next U.S. administration and the rest of the international community for breaking Israel's much-touted promise to withdraw.
The only way out for Sharon, political analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper, is for him to "rock the boat." One way of doing this would be to go to new elections.
But, as Caspit wrote, Sharon has become a leader without a party -- and, in an election situation, he might well face a strong leadership challenge.
To head this off, the Likud's Reuven Rivlin, the Knesset speaker, is proposing that Sharon and Netanyahu agree in advance on a leadership rotation: That Sharon be prime minister for two years after the next election and then make way for Netanyahu.
An even more radical solution for Sharon would be to trigger the "big bang" and form a centrist electoral alliance incorporating his wing of the Likud, Labor and Shinui, running together on a pro-disengagement ticket.
Polls show such an alignment would win about 60 Knesset seats. That would give a new Sharon-led government the political base for disengagement and more. But Israeli pundits doubt that the three aging party leaders -- Sharon, Peres and Shinui's Yosef "Tommy" Lapid -- would have the daring and stamina to pull together their disparate parties.
Leading analyst Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Achronot newspaper: "This plan did not have much chance to start off with. Now that the three old men are battered and beaten, the chances are even smaller."
Taken together, these factors don't augur well for the disengagement plan or for Israel's international standing. Most Israelis want to see disengagement proceed. The question is, can the unwieldy Israeli political system allow any government a political base solid enough to carry it out?<