Sharon to Side With Left?

The prime minister long considered the "George Patton of Israel" might well be allied with the relatively recent political arrival  known as "the Howard Dean of Israel."

With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bolting the right-of-center Likud Party last week and announcing plans to lead a new Party of National Responsibility in elections scheduled for March 28, odds are strong that the 77-year-old retired general could wind up in a new government with his opposite number in national politics:   Amir Peretz, who last month stunned Israel by winning the leadership of the opposition Labour Party over its most venerable politician, 82-year-old former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.  

Peretz is by far the most decidedly left-of-center political figure in modern Israeli history: a fiery orator, he not only calls for complete Israeli exit from the West Bank and all Palestinian turf in the Jewish state, but has chastised the Likud government for its efforts to introduce market reforms and roll back social spending.  

Indeed, where Sharon has been criticized by the right in his former party for overseeing the evacuation of settlements and troops from the Gaza strip earlier this year, Peretz has denounced the prime minister for "wasting billions" by permitting settlements and sending soldiers in the first place.

A Sharon-Peretz government, then, would be more of a political "odd couple" than the "grand coalition" of the CDU-CSU (conservatives) and Social Democrats that will take power in Germany next week.  But it could happen in Israel in March.  

According to a just-completed poll pushlished in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, a new party led by Sharon could win 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (Israel’s unicameral parliament), with Labor also taking 28 seats (a net gain from its present 21), and Likud finishing third with less than half its present forty seats.  Already, 13 of the 40 sitting Likud members have announced plans to side with Sharon’s renegade party.

"I had hoped that the prime minister would not do this because it would be deadly for Likud," Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel (Israel) and a former Likud member of parliament, told me during a luncheon in Washington only two days before Sharon’s announced his decision to bolt the party he helped form in 1973.

Sharon’s exit leaves his arch-rival Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister and until recently finance minister, the favorite to retake the leadership of a new Likud Party.  

As Marshall Breger of Catholic University, a former Reagan Administration official who knows both Sharon and Netanyahu, told me, "Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname] is the favorite of most Americans because they’ve seen him on television and like the way he is so well-spoken." But, in predicting that Likud’s Central Committee would once again decide to choose its leader through a primary of registered members, Breger also warned that Netanyahu would have spirited competition for the helm of a Sharon-free party.  

Specifically, he cited Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (born in Tunisia, he is, like Peretz, a Sephardic Jew) and Knesset member Uzi Landau, son of a former Likud leader and, like Shalom and Netanyahu, a hard-line opponent of disengagment from the West Bank.  Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who refused to leave the party with Sharon, announced last week that he, too, will run for leadership of Likud.

While Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party and Taiwan’s former President Lee Tsing-Hui left the Kuomintang Party to join the Solidarity Leadership Party, both made their moves after they were no longer the top official in their respective countries.  As presiding officer of the senate of the Phillippines in 1964, Ferdinand Marcos resigned from the Liberal Party and thereupon was elected president of his country the following year as candidate of the opposition Nacionalistas.  But his move came before he was president.  The scenario of a sitting head of government leaving his party to form a new vehicle is, according to most pundits, unprecedented in the world.

At this point, there are 22 parties in the Knesset, Likud and Labour being the two largest.  Under Israeli election law, the threshold for a party acquiring representation in the Knesset is to draw 1.5% of the vote nationwide–one of the smallest thresholds of any parliamentary system in the world.