Analysis: Sharon rejects hawks' pressure

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT  |  May 13, 2002 at 6:58 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, May 13 (UPI) -- Isolated in his own party by an overwhelming vote opposed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Ariel Sharon repeated Monday his determination to do whatever he thinks is right in negotiations with the Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minister was commenting on the overwhelming vote by the Likud Central Committee Sunday on a resolution saying that "no Palestinian state will be established west of the Jordan River."

The vote was seen as a victory for Sharon's political rival, former prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who says he favors self-determination for the Palestinians, but not the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Sharon has indicated publicly that, given what he would see as the proper circumstances, he would agree to a Palestinian state.

The Likud vote also rebuffed President Bush's vision of a Middle East accord in which Israel and Palestine existed side by side in peace. On Monday, Sharon reiterated to his Likud Knesset faction that he would do what he thinks is right.

"Two-thirds of the public elected me to make decisions -- and I have decided!" he read from a prepared statement at almost dictation speed.

Noting that he had promised to provide peace and security, Sharon declared, "I intend to fulfill my commitment. No one will sidetrack me." In a reference to Netanyahu, he went on, "I will not let internal political considerations and personal party maneuvers determine policy."

A Likud source pointed out that less than half the 2,600 members of the Central Committee were present at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium when the show of hands was made, and this weighted the vote in favor of Netanyahu. If more members had voted, the result could have been different.

In addition, a private Likud poll showed Sharon ahead of his rival among the party rank and file. The morning following the vote, several Likud ministers and Knesset members, some of them harsh Sharon critics, Monday went to a Knesset sitting to help topple a no-confidence motion by Arab Knesset members. The motion was easily defeated 43 to 12.

Sharon also has the support of the public for Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli security forces' offensive in the Palestinian West Bank.

One commentator said Monday that while Sharon was defeated at what should be his home base, and hundreds of members added insult when they booed and whistled as he left the hall, Sharon might have gained more popularity among the public at large.

"Sharon proved to the world and to Israeli public opinion that he stands up to the first test of leadership: He is ready to pay a political price to preserve diplomatic assets," Yediot Aharonot correspondent Nahum Barnea wrote.

There is little his Likud party can do to force its decisions unless the ministers and Knesset members vote against his motions in the cabinet and the parliament. The Likud cannot replace him because he was elected directly by the people. If he leaves office, there will be new elections. He said Monday elections would be held, as scheduled, in October 2003.

Some observers speculated that the vote could also work to Sharon's advantage by showing him to be more flexible in his approach to the Palestinians than his party.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Labor Party's chairman, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, warned his party would quit the coalition if the latest Likud resolution guides the government.

"If the policy will be 'No to a Palestinian state,' while we say 'Yes to a Palestinian state,' it is clear we would have to go and draw the conclusions," Ben-Eliezer told reporters.

Opposition leader Yossi Sarid, of the dovish Meretz Party, charged that despite his statements, Sharon too does not envisage a viable Palestinian sovereign state. However, Sarid added, the Likud decision "adds Israel to the list of crazy countries."

(Roland Flamini in Washington contributed to this analysis.)

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