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QUO VADIS ARIEL SHARON?

Prime Minister Ponders Whether To Carry On In Likud Or Quit & Form New Centrist Party

Latest Opinion Poll Indicates New Sharon Party & Labor Would Both Win 28 Knesset Seats

Netanyahu Lead Likud Would Plummet To Only 18

PM Ariel Sharon (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Within a couple of days Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to announce whether he will carry on as Likud leader or quit to form a new rival party in the upcoming early election. Now spending the weekend at his Negev ranch, Sharon has not given any hint of what he'll do. The latest poll in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper indicates the Likud would crash without Sharon and serves to strengthen the Prime Minister's hand in the tug of war with his rebellious party.

If Ariel Sharon quits the Likud to form a new party, the Likud will lose the upcoming election. That's the result of the latest opinion poll in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. A Netanyahu lead Likud would go into a nosedive losing 22 Knesset seats and ending up with only 18 in the 120 member Parliament. With Sharon at the helm, the Likud would garner 38 seats and probably form the next Israeli government.

On the other hand, the poll shows a new Sharon party would end up in a tie with Labor; both parties would take 28 seats. This political conundrum is what Sharon will have to resolve this weekend at his ranch in the Negev. The latest poll is shocking for Sharon's ruling Likud party that has rebelled against his unilateral disengagement from Gaza and is demanding the Prime Minister abide by party decisions when it comes to giving up more territory. The Likud wants to hear from Sharon that the Gaza 'retreat' was a one-time deal. Sharon says no way. The Prime Minister contends it is HIS responsibility to formulate and implement policy. This latest poll shows the Likud is a winner with Sharon and a loser with him. With the risk of losing power staring it in the face, is the Likud still going to buck Sharon? There could be a groundswell among party members calling to give Sharon what he wants; for example negotiating the Roadmap on a Palestinian state, if the terrorists are disarmed. But even so, what guarantee can Sharon get that he will not again face a rebellious Likud caucus after he wins the election for the party?

With the early election now slated for late February or March, Sharon would have to work overtime to put a new party together, although a number of Likudniks would follow him. Then again, his new party would end in a draw with Labor, both getting 28 seats. It would be a toss-up whether Sharon or Peretz would form the new government.

The poll found that more Israelis now feel that social-economic issues are bigger issues than security and the peace process. The breakdown is 37% to 30% and this explains why Amir Peretz would gain another 6 seats for Labor. Ironically, this trend is the result of Sharon's success in containing the Palestinian terrorism. Would Israelis be more concerned with economic and welfare issues, if suicide bombers were still blowing up buses? If this is the case, the Palestinians could have a major impact on the election result. If the security situation continues more or less quiet, it will help Peretz. However, if there is a flare-up or on the Lebanese border near election-day, it could cause a voter swing to Sharon, 'Mr. Security'.By implementing the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon opted for political pragmatism over Likud ideology. He is in a double bind; either be a prisoner to the far right or to the far left, where Peretz appears to be moving Labor. The stakes are very high and time is running out for Sharon with a date for the early election to be announced by Monday.

David Essing

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