TEL AVIV, Israel, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- Upon completing the evacuation of the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank settlements Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will probably turn to regain something else he has lost: his party.
Two recent public opinion polls showed that if Likud Party primaries were held now his main rival, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, would win.
Sharon's opponents are therefore pressing for early primaries. They have collected the 600 signatures requiring a Central Committee meeting and now the question is whether it should just discuss advancing the primaries or vote on it too.
Sharon's people, for their part, have been engaged in delaying tactics. First they said the meeting cannot be held until the settlements' evacuation is completed and now they maintain they are waiting for the Likud court's decision on what kind of a meeting is required: With a vote or without it.
On several occasions the Likud's Central Committees held stormy meetings that just let off steam since no vote was held. Eventually, however, a show of hands or a secret ballot could not be avoided.
Sharon's problems are not surprising. The Likud membership is, by and large, hawkish, nationalistic. Its veteran members sing about the two banks of the Jordan River being "ours." That means Israel proper, the occupied Palestinian territories and the Jordanian kingdom.
Many Israelis haven't forgotten Sharon the soldier who led cross border attacks in the 1950s, crossed the Suez Canal in the 1973 war and turned the tables on the Egyptian army. He was the main driving force behind the establishment of Jewish settlements all over the occupied territories.
During the election campaigns he promised to provide security but also expressed, "Readiness for painful concessions." He did not explain what he meant by that and critics asked jokingly, "Painful to whom?"
Israeli hawks thus felt cheated when he suddenly went for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, destroying all the settlements that have existed there for about a generation, evacuating four West Bank settlements, and not even asking the Palestinians for any quid pro quo. Some felt he was yielding to Palestinian terror. He has a record of being able to destroy things he has built with painstaking effort.
Sharon maintained the Jewish State could not rule over the 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He noted the Gazans, who now number 1.3 million people, double their population every generation.
A senior party official Sunday rejected claims that Sharon has deceived the voters. "Whoever said Sharon cheated him is either lying (to us) or lying to himself.... Where did they think the concessions would be made?"
The Likud members tried to stop Sharon but failed. When he lost a vote in a Central Committee meeting in Tel Aviv, he declared he would still do what he thinks is right, and walked out of the hall. He agreed to a referendum among party members on the withdrawal. He lost the vote and ignored the results. Ministers who opposed him resigned or were fired. It was legal, the High Court of Justice ruled, but the right wing activists were left with a feeling they have been wronged.
Now he wants their confidence for another term of office.
It is not clear how Sharon intends to regain their support. "Of course it (his situation) troubles me," acknowledged Eyal Arad, Sharon's strategic adviser. "We have no political answers.
"We're now engaged solely in transferring 835 (evacuated settler families) from hotels to homes and not with 3,000 (Likud) Central Committee members," he added explaining his refusal to answer political questions.
It was a typical remark Sharon's used to make when he wanted to avoid an unpleasant question. 'I have more important matters, of national importance, to deal with. What are you bothering me with such matters?' he has argued on countless occasions.
After the evacuation Sharon could veer to the right, lose his Labor Party coalition partners who want more concessions in the West Bank and form a new coalition with right wing hawkish parties. He has already said he plans no more unilateral withdrawals, aides have said he wants to drag out talks on further concessions, the United States wants the peace process to move forward so he could claim he needs the hawks support to protect Israel's "vital interests."
Sharon could split the Likud, but Israel's political history has shown that to be a bad option. When he tried to form his own party, Shlomzion, in 1977, he started off with polls showing he would get 17 to 22 mandates in the 120 seat Knesset. He got two.
Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion quit Mapai with Shimon Peres and the legendary Moshe Dayan, formed a party called Rafi and did not do too well. Peres and Dayan later returned to the fold now called the Labor Party. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai broke with the Likud, headed the Center Party that disintegrated shortly after the elections.
The Yediot Aharonot newspaper said Friday that Sharon shares his real thoughts with no forum. In his closest circle advisers he mainly listens because there have been too many leaks from it.
Hebrew University Political Science Professor Menachem Hofnung predicted Sharon would fight for the Likud's leadership as long as he feels he has a reasonable chance of winning.
"It would be difficult to fight for the premiership from the position of one who lost in the Likud," he said.
Sharon might bolt if he would see, a month or two before the primaries that he is losing the race against Netanyahu and a lot depends on the Palestinians, Hofnung said.
If the border with Gaza will be quiet, Sharon will win public support. If Qassam rockets will continue flying, Netanyahu will win.
And that might be the real determining factor. Sharon is not popular with his party, but is popular with the Israelis at large.
A public opinion poll published in the Ha'aretz newspaper on August 12 showed that if he would head the Likud in the general elections 13.8 of the respondents they would definitely vote, or consider voting Likud. Some 13.1 percent said they might do so.
If Netanyahu were to head the Likud list, would you vote or consider voting Likud, the pollsters asked.
Netanyahu did not do as well. Definitely yes, said 10.2 percent of the 520 respondents. "Possibly yes," said 9.6 percent.
Sharon was the vote getter, as he had been in the last elections. For a party hungry to reserve power, that is a major consideration.