Early elections may not have been Ariel Sharon's first choice, but his decision to go to the polls as soon as possible enables the savvy Israeli prime minister to make a number of political and diplomatic gains.
By calling the shots, Sharon comes across as a powerful leader still setting the national agenda. By calling elections for late January, he makes it difficult for the Labor Party, which left his government only last week, to establish itself as a credible opposition force.
In addition, by rejecting the idea of a narrow government with the far-right National Union-Israel Our Home bloc, Sharon avoids a potential showdown with Washington and retains the consensual, middle-of-the-road image that has made him so popular in Israel.
The Sharon government's last order of business will be to pass, as soon as possible and without amendments, the 2003 budget over which Labor ostensibly left the coalition last week.
All other major policy issues likely will be on hold until after the elections. In the run-up to an expected American attack on Iraq, Sharon is unlikely to undertake any military moves against the Palestinians that might upset Washington.
For the same reason, he is unlikely to move on the American "road map" for peace with the Palestinians, arguing that such major policy issues should be left to the post-election government.
What the early election gambit fails to do is catch Sharon's rival for Likud Party leadership, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unprepared.
In fact, Sharon's announcement Tuesday that he would go to elections within 90 days followed a weekend of dramatic maneuvering between Sharon and Netanyahu, two political masters.
Sharon had hoped to trap Netanyahu by offering him the Foreign Ministry: Either he would accept and tie his fate to Sharon's government, or he would refuse and appear more interested in his own political destiny than in the national welfare.
The move seemed to backfire, however, when Netanyahu outflanked Sharon by accepting the post -- on the condition that Sharon move for early elections. On Monday, the prime minister rejected the condition, calling it "irresponsible."
The very next day, however, Sharon notified President Moshe Katsav of his intention to go to elections -- making the decision his own, rather than the product of pressure from Netanyahu.
For good measure, Sharon blamed the decision on political blackmail by the far-right parties, displaying the centrist tack he will take in his re-election campaign against challengers he will portray as too extreme from both the right and the left.
Netanyahu then accepted the Foreign Ministry offer, arguing that Sharon had met his main condition.
For Netanyahu, too, it's not a bad development. As foreign minister, he would approach the election for party leader -- which will be held before the national elections -- from the best possible position, political analyst Sima Kadmon wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot: "Holding a senior, made-to-measure post, with the backing of the government of Israel to go round the world expressing his views, after having successfully fixed an agreed date for the end of Sharon's current tenure."
Netanyahu has been working intensely on his political comeback since leaving politics after his landslide loss to Ehud Barak in May 1999. In the recent Likud membership drive, which brought in a total of 305,000 members, he seemed to have the edge over Sharon.
Polls of Likud members, who will elect the party's leader and candidate for prime minister, give Netanyahu a slight lead.
Sharon had hoped to keep his government going, one way or another, for a few months longer. Displaying steady leadership during a time of crisis, such as the expected American attack on Iraq, would allow him to open a sizable lead over Netanyahu, Sharon believed.
But Sharon soon realized the scenario wasn't possible, at least on his own terms. Trying to cobble together a new government after Labor's defection last week, the prime minister found himself caught in a tangle of political and diplomatic contradictions: If he moved to the right, he ran the risk of confrontation with Washington. But unless he moved to the right, his chances of forming a stable coalition were small.
His determination to avoid antagonizing Washington made it almost impossible for Sharon to satisfy the demands of potential right-wing coalition partners. Early on in the government crisis, Sharon assured the Bush administration that he would not change the government guidelines worked out with the Labor Party in March 2001 or retract his support for the Bush vision of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But that is precisely what the National Union-Israel Our Home faction was demanding. And there was another, even more difficult hurdle to an agreement: The leader of National Union-Israel Our Home, Avigdor Lieberman, insisted that Sharon promise to set up another narrow right-wing government after the next elections.
"If we are only there to help the Likud through a rainy day, why should we bother?" Lieberman snapped in a radio interview on Monday. Later that day, he added: "We are not the Likud's gum, to be chewed and then discarded."
Sharon's answer was swift. Rejecting Lieberman's condition, he said he preferred another national unity government with Labor after elections. That was the signal for early elections.
In the government's remaining 90 days, Netanyahu and the new defense minister, the former army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, might try to coerce Sharon into expelling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a move all three ostensibly favor.
As America prepares an anticipated attack on Iraq, however, Sharon is unlikely to do anything to antagonize Washington or inflame the Arab world. The Americans' road map is also likely to be left for the next government.
The composition of the next government is therefore crucial. Will it be led by the Likud -- and if so, by Sharon or by Netanyahu?
Or will it be led by Labor -- and if so, by the current, centrist party leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, or by more left-wing politicians such as Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna or Knesset member Haim Ramon?
Leadership primaries are due in Labor on Nov. 19. Likud primaries probably will be held soon afterward.
Recent polls show Likud likely to rise from its current 19 Knesset seats to almost 30, while Labor would fall from 24 to around 20.
However, those polls were taken when Labor was still in the Likud-led government, with no undisputed leader and no clear political identity of its own. As a fighting opposition under a leader with a clear mandate, Labor's support could rise, even though there is not much time until elections.
Sharon has indicated that he will campaign as the experienced, responsible unifier of the nation, dismissing his opponents as divisive and inexperienced.
For all their substantive policy differences, both Netanyahu and Labor argue that, unlike Sharon, they can actually solve the nation's problems.
Whoever wins the Labor primary is expected to target the settlers, arguing that Likud is beholden to the settlers and thus can't make peace with the Palestinians and solve the nation's acute security and socioeconomic problems.
Ironically, the early elections could turn out to have been very nicely timed: A post-Iraq America and a post-election Israel could get down to serious business on the basis of the American plan for peace with the Palestinians.
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