Ariel Sharon and Amir Peretz have finally met and agreed to new elections in late February or early March. Ynet says that Sharon supports a Feburary 28th date, but none has been set yet.
Both men are performing side-by-side high-wire acts. There may be nets to break their fall but they’re awfully far below them and the nets themselves are frayed. If they succeed in crossing to the other side without a stumble then one of them will win the golden prize, the prime ministership. If they fall, they could bring their own careers and their parties down as well.
Sharon’s high-wire act involves his decision on whether to bolt Likud and establish a new centrist party. Ynet carries an interesting article stating that Sharon is likely to leave Likud (which contradicts the NY Times‘ own story and much of the scuttlebutt I’ve been reading from Israeli political observers). Ynet claims as sources for the information close aides to Sharon. The big benefit for Sharon in leaving is the vast increase in political manuvering room he will gain in terms of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and internal Israeli politics. The big unknown is how well Sharon would do outside of Likud in the next election.
The Sharon aides quoted in the article say that Sharon has a guarantee of 10-15 Likud MKs who will walk with him (if he does). That would bring Likud from its current 40 seats to 25-30 seats and it would fragment the Israeli political scene by creating a third major party.
Peretz’s circus act is equally daunting. He must whip up a virtually moribund Party and almost single-handedly give it political vitality. He must both articulate a new path for Labor, which under Peres’ leadership foundered on the principle of going-along to get-along with Ariel Sharon, and avoid the pitfalls of over-ideologizing his political platform. If he falls into this trap then his political opponents will make mincemeat out of him as ‘Red Amir,’ ‘Amir the Bolshevik,’ etc. He needs to project a strong, sure hand while exuding warmth and humor. Given Peretz’s left-wing orientation (a rarity these days in Israel), it won’t be the easiest thing for him to gain the trust of those who mistrust or hate him: business, the military, Labor’s Old Guard, and the kibbutz movement. And without making inroads into this group he will have a difficult time of it. He must not back down from his political principles and positions, but he must project a sense of moderation and willingness to work together with those (including voters) who don’t see eye to eye with him.
Finally, the wildest card in all this (there are so many wild cards!) is Hamas and the Palestinian militants. If they want to see another four years of Sharon, no progress toward final status negotiations, continued settlement expansion in the West Bank, and continued assassinations and incarceration of their leaders, then they should continue their attempts to terrorize Israel. As we saw with Shimon Peres’ run for Prime Minister in 1996 after Rabin’s assassination, when the militants unleashed a ferocious series of terror bombings against Israel, this played right into Netanyahu’s hands and he won. The same is likely to happen to Peretz, one of whose potential weaknesses is security. But if Hamas really wants final status negotiations, a viable state of their own, a capital in East Jerusalem, and a secure peace with Israel, then they should end all terror from now through the election. Peretz may be a tough negotiator and give the Palestinians as hard a time as Sharon at the peace table (though we don’t really know how Sharon would negotiate because he’s done very little of it with them), they may never find another Israeli leader as forthright as Peretz. But in never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, I doubt that Hamas will get the message.
There are oh so many within Sharon and Peretz’ respective Parties who’d like nothing more than to see each of them fall. These are interesting times. One hopes they will not be ‘interesting’ in the sense of this ancient Chinese proverb: “May you be cursed to live in interesting times.”