After a string of embarrassing defeats in his own party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's victory in the election of key Likud officers raises the chances that he will be able to broaden his government and push through a promised withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- though it's still not certain.
Likud rebels, who have been at the forefront of the campaign against Sharon's "disengagement" plan, put up candidates for three top party posts. Had they won, Sharon's political future would have been bleak.
"The message of such a victory will be that Sharon is finished," pundit Yossi Verter wrote in Ha'aretz ahead of Monday's vote. "It would be very difficult for Sharon to lead the Likud again in the next Knesset elections."
Instead, the victory of three people who aren't diehard Sharon loyalists but are figures the prime minister feels he can work with, improves the prospects for progress just as the United States and Europe prepare for a reinvigorated peace push.
The vote came as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the region to see whether new chances for peace have opened in the wake of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's death, and what the United States can do to facilitate elections for a new Palestinian leader.
On the plane coming in, Powell hinted that if the Palestinians make real efforts to stop terrorism, the United States would be ready to contribute $20 million toward Palestinian elections. On Tuesday, the diplomatic "Quartet" behind the "road map" peace plan -- the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia -- announced that it would help finance th elections.
In Jerusalem on Monday, Sharon told Powell that Israel would do all it could to facilitate the Palestinian elections. He said Israel was ready for security coordination with the Palestinians in the run-up to the vote, would allow Arabs from eastern Jerusalem to vote and would allow full freedom of movement in the Palestinian territories on election day.
Clearly, the Americans want to exploit the chance to kick-start the deadlocked process, and Powell sounded an upbeat note after his talks in Jerusalem and with Palestinian leaders in Jericho. He spoke of a "new attitude on the Palestinian side" and "flexibility in Israel," and said, "there is enough for us to move forward now."
Powell also pleased his Israeli hosts by dismissing the possibility that the Quartet would seek to skirt the road map -- which calls for incremental progress only after each side has met its commitments at each step along the way -- by hosting a high-profile summit.
"The road map is the way forward -- the only way forward -- and it is nothing that can be jumped into, it has to go step by step," Powell said.
"What we really need is for the Palestinian side in this new era to speak out clearly against terrorism, and to gather in all of the elements of the Palestinian community and make it clear to them that it is time to stop all incitement, to stop all violence,"he said, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The Israelis also are upbeat. A senior Israeli intelligence source told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that with the new Palestinian leadership there is a good chance for a "total change in Palestinian political culture."
If so, Monday's Likud vote improves the chance that they will find an Israeli coalition able to break the diplomatic deadlock.
The rebel candidates -- Uzi Landau for the key Central Committee chairmanship, Michael Ratzon for the secretariat and Gilad Erdan for the bureau -- were comfortably beaten by, respectively, former Public Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and Health Minister Danny Naveh.
The results show that the rebels do not control the 2,970-member Central Committee, the Likud's highest decision-making body, when there is full turnout.
Sharon lost a number of key Central Committee votes when turnout was low. For Monday's showdown, his supporters focused mainly on getting out the Central Committee vote, and pundits agree that it was the huge 91 percent turnout that sank the rebels.
Analysts say the vote shows the rebels control a hard core of around 30 percent of the Central Committee, and that Sharon can count on about the same number.
The rest float and vote according to the issue at hand. That means Sharon theoretically could win support for moves to widen his coalition.
The prime minister's losses in the party began in May 2002, when the Central Committee defied him and put the party on record against the establishment of a Palestinian state. In May this year Sharon was defeated in a full party membership vote on his disengagement plan, with Landau, Ratzon and Erdan leading the campaign against him.
Then, in August, the Central Committee defied Sharon again, voting against bringing in Labor to bolster Sharon's shaky government.
The successive defeats heightened perceptions of the prime minister's vulnerability inside the party. In the Knesset, a growing number of Likud legislators came out against his disengagement plan.
As the anti-Sharon bandwagon gathered pace, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a move designed to unseat the prime minister. He and five other Likud Cabinet ministers planned to vote against Sharon's disengagement plan in the Knesset last month, a move that could have created a major government crisis and sparked an early national election with Netanyahu leading the Likud.
Ironically, Hanegbi, Katz and Naveh -- the men Sharon was pleased to see elected Monday -- were among the ministers involved in what Sharon aides described as Netanyahu's "putsch."
But Sharon's overwhelming victory in that Knesset vote, after Netanyahu backed down, was a turning point for the prime minister's standing in the party. Several Knesset members who had vociferously opposed him suddenly declared their allegiance. Monday night's triumph shored up Sharon's position.
The question now is whether Sharon will be able to bring Labor into his coalition and create a firm political base to carry out the promised withdrawals.
If he had been elected Central Committee chairman, Landau would have done all he could to torpedo the disengagement plan, including keeping Labor out. Hanegbi, however, seemed to open a crack for Labor to come through after Monday's vote.
Labor wouldn't be able to join the coalition without other parties such as Shas or United Torah Judaism, he said. In other words, if Sharon can persuade either of the two ultra-Orthodox parties to join his coalition, he would be able to bring Labor in, as well.
What Hanegbi and many in the Central Committee oppose is a Likud-Labor-Shinui government, in which the Likud likely would be bullied into more dovish positions by the two more moderate secular parties. But a coalition in which Likud and at least one right-wing, ultra-Orthodox party force Shinui out and dominate Labor is a different proposition.
In Labor, there now is a strong drive to join Sharon's coalition -- partly to help him carry out the disengagement and partly to block former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's bid to recapture the Labor leadership.
Matan Vilnai, one of Barak's chief rivals for the top spot, is proposing that Labor agree to join Sharon's government without taking any ministerial posts. That would achieve two purposes: Carrying out the disengagement and putting off Labor primaries for another year, forcing Barak to cool his heels.
Over the next few weeks, Sharon will make a supreme effort to widen his coalition, with Labor and the ultra-Orthodox as his main targets, even though success almost surely would mean the departure of Shinui, his main coalition partner until now.
If Sharon is able to cut a deal, the Central Committee under Hanegbi will be asked to approve it, despite its earlier vote against a unity government with Labor. And if a new vote goes Sharon's way, Monday's victory will have been extremely significant for Sharon -- and for disengagement.
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