Biggest Test for Sharon Expected to Come after Likud Vote ; the Israeli Prime Minister Is Set to Be Reelected as Party Leader Thursday

Article excerpt

Ariel Sharon is well on the way to being reelected as Israel's prime minister.

For one thing, Mr. Sharon seems to have vanquished his most formidable internal critic, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Polls and political analysts predict that Mr. Sharon will defeat Mr. Netanyahu in a party election Thursday for the leadership of Israel's Likud bloc.

A telegenic politician once considered a serious threat to Sharon, Netanyahu is watching his campaign for party leader fizzle. Likud members, says Daniel Ben Simon, a political writer for the Ha'aretz newspaper, are being forced to choose between "the most patriotic figure" in the party - Sharon - and "the most charismatic one." Patriotism appears to be winning. "It's amazing how the magic of Netanyahu has dwindled," Mr. Ben Simon says.

The pollsters and analysts seem just as certain that Likud will emerge as the dominant party in a national election set for Jan. 28, meaning that Sharon will have the opportunity to form Israel's next government.

What happens after that is a good deal murkier. Sharon has presided over a broad coalition, including Likud's longtime rival, the Labor Party, for most of his premiership. Last week, Labor elected a new leader - Amram Mitzna, a former general and the mayor of Haifa - who says he is not inclined to join a government led by Sharon.

For the first time since Sharon came to power in March 2001, says Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan, "a leading Israeli politician is looking the Israeli people in the eye and saying 'I'm giving you a credible alternative.' "

Mitzna is promising to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip should he become prime minister, although the conventional political wisdom says Labor will win far fewer seats in parliament than Likud. Mitzna is also promising to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians in spite of continuing violence. Sharon has long insisted that violence must cease before talks can begin.

If negotiations fail, Mitzna says, he will unilaterally "disengage" Israel from the Palestinians, although he dodges questions on just how he would do so.

"I bring a new hope," Mitzna told foreign reporters Monday, describing his approach. "And I hope this ... will drive also the Palestinians to take steps, to do something, to stop terrorism."

Mitzna easily defeated Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who served as defense minister under Sharon, in the Labor leadership election last week. The result was clear evidence that Labor stalwarts are tired of being part of a "unity" government, no matter how grave the crises facing the country. …

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