Analysis: An exercise in keeping options open

Sharon's speech sent a message that he has not yet written-off the Likud.

sharon in glasses 88 (photo credit: )
sharon in glasses 88
(photo credit: )
It's been a very long time since the Knesset podium has been the location of choice for Israeli leaders interested in launching any significant type of diplomatic initiative. The Herzliya conference; yes. The Knesset; no. Monday's opening of the Knesset's winter session, with Sharon giving what was billed as a "diplomatic" speech, was no exception. Though a number of ambassadors were in the audience, Sharon's diplomatic speech was meant more for the ears of the Likud, than to grab the attention of the world's leaders. If anything, Sharon's speech, coupled with his decision to put off by a week the vote on his new cabinet choices rather than risk a loss and force him to decide his political future now, sent a message that he has not yet written-off the Likud. Ever since Sharon beat rival Binyamin Netanyahu in the Likud Central Committee vote last month, speculation has been rife about his intentions. Would he run in the Likud primaries in the Spring against Netanyahu; or would he jettison all the aggravation, bolt the party and its annoying "rebels, " and start a new one. Had Sharon made up his mind that his gig with the Likud was up, he would likely not only have spoken Monday about painful concessions in the past tense, but also indicated that Israel would be called upon to make additional painful concessions in the future as well. "Israel has already proven its willingness to make painful concessions," he said. "Now we want to see tangible actions by the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people on the way to true peace." Had Sharon given up on his party he would probably not have mentioned Israel's 14 reservations when making reference to the road map, but would just have mentioned the road map; full stop. "The government's policy is to work toward implementation of the road map, with Israel's 14 reservations, as was approved by the government," Sharon said. "The road map is the only diplomatic plan that provides a horizon of hope and peace to both sides." Sharon makes mention of these 14 reservations sparingly, generally only to domestic audiences, and usually when he is trying to find favor in the Likud's eyes. These reservations are the 14 points that Israel tacked on to the road map, at Netanyahu's behest, to make the road map more palatable before the cabinet adopted the plan in May 2003. Sharon brought these long-forgotten reservations back to life in August, right after disengagement, when he was interesting in appeasing his Likud base. For a year before that he hardly mentioned them. These points stress Israel's demand that the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist organizations, that Jerusalem remain Israel's united capital, that the Palestinian refugees not have a "right of return" and that Israel keep sovereign powers such as control of the borders and the airspace in any future political settlement. (Israel has already gone a long way toward giving up control of Gaza's borders.) The 14 reservations also included a stipulation that a cessation of terror would be the first condition for progress in the road map, something at odds with the US understanding of the road map that has Israel and the Palestinians fulfilling their obligations in parallel, not sequentially. That Sharon mentioned these 14 points in his speech was a clear sign that that he has not given up on the Likud. The other diplomatic points Sharon made Monday - that the security fence would be completed regardless of cost; that the Iranian president's declaration that he wanted to destroy Israel coupled with last week's terror in Hadera reminded us all of the rough neighborhood we live in; and that the Palestinians must dismantle terror - is, inside the Likud, pretty much the equivalent of mother and apple pie. Sharon's maiden speech to the winter session of the Knesset had nothing new or dramatic in it, not even a hint of anything new or dramatic. It bore only one clear message - Sharon is biding his time, cautiously avoiding gratuitously alienating anyone inside his faction before deciding whether the party he chiseled together in 1973 is the one he would feel comfortable leading in 2006.