Does Sharon want an early election?

Pros and cons the PM is weighing before deciding whether to shorten his current tenure.

sharon chews finger 88 (photo credit: )
sharon chews finger 88
(photo credit: )
The fates of the leaders of the United States and Israel have been tied together in an eerie kind of way since they initiated the Gaza Strip disengagement plan together. US President George W. Bush angered his constituents by not withdrawing thousands of people from the southern part of his country when it was hit by Katrina, the first in a season of devastating hurricanes. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came under fire from a sizable portion of the population of his country for withdrawing thousands of people from their homes in the southern part of his country. Bush caved in when ultra-Conservatives in his party prevented him from appointing his friend, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court. Sharon might have to give in to the demands of the hawks in his party who are trying to prevent him from appointing his friends, Ehud Olmert, Ze'ev Boim and Roni Bar-On, to cabinet positions. But the difference between the rancher from Texas and the rancher from the Negev is that Bush doesn't have to worry about getting elected to a third term. Sharon's advisers are divided over whether to use Monday's Knesset vote on the cabinet appointments as an excuse to visit President Moshe Katsav and initiate an early election. Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz gave Sharon justification when he ruled that acting finance minister Ehud Olmert would have to be appointed in a permanent capacity by Wednesday or the position would not be able to be filled under the current government unless it resigns and becomes a caretaker government. Advisers Lior Chorev, Uri Shani, Reuven Adler and Dov Weisglass have all reportedly told Sharon to go to elections as soon as possible. Adviser Eyal Arad, Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon and Sharon's son, MK Omri Sharon have reportedly recommended that Sharon keep the government together, at least until the next crisis comes around. During the crisis over the appointments, Sharon has purposely kept his advisers uninformed about his future plans, because he doesn't want leaks or promises made in his name. He wants as much flexibility as possible for the decisions that lie ahead. Sharon instructed the advisers to tell reporters who ask about the potential for early elections to only say that the prime minister "knows what to do." But Sharon's advisers told The Jerusalem Post that there are at least five reasons why he would want to initiate an early election and at least five reasons why he would not. The prime minister will consider the pros and cons over the weekend at his ranch and make a decision that will dictate whether he will be willing to compromise with his political opponents ahead of Monday's fateful vote in the Knesset. Sharon's reasons for early elections: 1) Sharon is at his peak in popularity after the Gaza Strip withdrawal was completed without serious incidents of violence. His top challenger for the Likud leadership, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is at a low-point and the Labor Party, which is holding its leadership primary on Wednesday, has become more of a satellite of the Likud than a competitor. That can all change in a matter of months. "Bibi, Labor and Shinui are at their nadir and we want to cash in on the advantage," a senior Sharon adviser said. 2) The terrorist attack in Hadera, missiles fired at Sderot, mortar fired at Moshav Nativ Ha'asara and the bullet that killed St.-Sgt Yonatan Evron have not resulted in a significant public outcry. But if incidents of violence multiply, Sharon would undoubtedly get blamed and his public support would drop. Terrorist attacks took victory out of the hands of Shimon Peres in 1996, and Sharon's advisers say that if more violence is inevitable, it would be better for him to have the election as soon as possible. 3) Sharon cannot initiate any significant diplomatic steps before the next election. He has told his associates that he wants to be the prime minister who decides where Israel's final borders are going to be and another vote of confidence from the electorate would give him carte blanche to do that. "There is no doubt that Sharon wants to draw the borders," a Sharon associate said. "Sharon thinks that only he can do it because he knows the land. It will be difficult, but it's what the nation wants and it's what the world wants." 4) The fact that Sharon's purposely uncontroversial "motherhood and apple pie" policy statement to the Knesset on Monday passed by only three votes and the appointments crisis have proven that the government's hands will be tied in the Knesset even though the disengagement that divided the Likud is over. Sharon's advisers have told him that if the current crisis is resolved, a new one will arise every two weeks. Initiating an election now would give Sharon the option to leave the Likud or stay in the party and hope for a Knesset list more to his liking. 5) If Sharon initiates an early election, the earliest it could be held is Tuesday, February 7, only nine months before the November 7 date currently set, and one day more than five years since he was first elected on February 6, 2001. That's not much time, and it could be even less. Sharon could reach an agreement with Labor and Shinui on an election date, or Katsav - in accordance with the law - could give Netanyahu three weeks for a futile attempt to form a new coalition. If Netanyahu fails to form a coalition, the election would likely not be held until Tuesday, March 7. Sharon's reasons against early elections: 1) All politicians know that it is almost never wise to artificially shorten their own tenures. Sharon would be taking a risk by initiating an election in which he could easily be defeated. If he runs in the Likud, his fate will be decided by the Likud membership that voted against disengagement in the ill-fated Likud referendum. If he forms a new party, it could follow the trend of other centrist lists that started strong in the polls and gradually fizzled out. If Sharon could stay in power until November, he would become only the third prime minister to complete a full term. 2) A crisis over an inability to make political appointments is a bad reason for initiating an election, especially at a time when there is a public outcry against political corruption. Sharon's "spin"-sters would try to explain to the public that the appointments were just a symptom of a government that could no longer function. But the electorate might tie the failed appointments to other corruption scandals and decide that after unilateral disengagement, they do not want a prime minister who tried unilaterally to elect his cronies and unilaterally initiated an election. 3) The closer the election is to disengagement, the better the chances that the Likud rebels will be re-elected by the party's central committee. The main reason for the rebels' struggle against Sharon's appointments is that they wanted to remain in the headlines after disengagement. Initiating an election now would allow Sharon's political opponents to say that they battled for good governance against a dictatorial prime minister who strayed from the values of his electorate. If he intends to stay in the Likud, the last thing Sharon wants is a list full of hawks. 4) It would be better for Sharon to pass the 2006 state budget before initiating an election than to have the budget hanging over the head of the next government. If the budget is not passed in this term, it would be the first item on the agenda of the next government, and it would impact the makeup of the next coalition. Sharon doesn't like to have his hands tied. He also wants the current budget to pass, so Netanyahu will be blamed for the difficulties it imposes on the underprivileged, including many Likud members. 5) Holding an election now would return the world's attention back to Israel. Since disengagement, Israel has enjoyed unprecedented international support at a time when the world is focusing on the evils of Israel's enemies in Iran and Syria. The world could make new demands on Israel during an election campaign. Sharon would also have to tell the electorate what he intends to do with the West Bank - something that he has tried to avoid doing - and that could give new headaches to Bush, who has his hands full of problems right now in Washington.