Jewish World Review Nov. 25, 2002 / 20 Kislev, 5763

Zev Chafets

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Sharon looks like a winner | On Thursday, Israel will choose its next leader. After months of internecine warfare, political instability and high drama, the new guy is likely to be the same as the old guy.

The choice will be made not in a national election, but in the Likud Party primary. The contenders are Prime Minister Ariel (Arik) Sharon and Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu.

The winner faces off in what promises to be an anticlimactic contest in January against an opponent with no nickname, the newly elected Labor Party leader, Amram Mitzna. A former general, he is a Sabra cross between Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. Polls show he would probably do better running for office in Massachusetts.

Mitzna has become the leader of Labor pretty much by default. His predecessor, Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, was too crude for his elite-leaning party. Mitzna is, in contrast, fastidious. He kicked off his campaign by announcing that A) He does not believe in God; and B) He will negotiate with terrorists as he unilaterally withdraws from Gaza. He can expect the political reward that awaits all brutally honest atheist-appeasement wartime candidates.

Neither Sharon nor Netanyahu suffers from a similar excess of candor. Sharon, for the sake of American good will, swears strenuously that he favors the Bush administration's plan to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu, with equal vehemence, says he'll tell Washington to forget about it.

As every Likudnik knows, both candidates are lying.

While America is engaged in reshaping the Middle East, no sane Israeli prime minister will get into a fight with Washington. If elected, Netanyahu will play along with Bush's (not too sincere) Palestinian policy, just as Sharon has.

In the absence of a real ideological or policy difference between the contenders, the Likud primary will be decided mostly on emotion. Polls show Sharon leading Netanyahu 56% to 38%.

This is unsurprising. Sharon is an incumbent father figure who generally is thought to have done a good job in difficult circumstances. He also has the support of the Bush administration --- a not inconsiderable asset. Back in the days of Bush I, Arik was persona non grata in Washington; now he is Dubya's ally and confidant.

Last week, U.S. officials began telling reporters that the President looks favorably on Sharon's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees.

Netanyahu would love a good word from Bush, but he won't get it. His problem is his personality, not his politics. Bibi visits Washington often, and he hasn't managed to hide his belief that he, not Bush, is best qualified to lead the Free World. This undistilled self-regard also causes him problems at home. If he had his own Israeli sitcom, it would be called, "Nobody Loves Bibi."

Netanyahu's only real hope is Hamas. In 1996, an election eve wave of bus bombings helped discredit dovish Shimon Peres and put Bibi in the prime minister's chair for three scandal-ridden, competence-free years.

History may be repeating itself. In the past two weeks, terrorists have staged a series of attacks. In Israeli politics, the murder of civilians, especially children, arouses sufficient public anger and frustration to deliver a short-term, cathartic bump to the toughest talker. Another bombing would amount to a Netanyahu campaign rally.

Still, Sharon isn't Peres, and not many Likud primary voters will be convinced that the old warrior is soft on terrorism - especially now that he has dropped the army back into Bethlehem and Hebron with a resounding thud.

This is Sharon's election to lose. I don't think he will.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

11/18/02: It's the war, stupid
11/14/02: The Dems don't have a prayer
11/07/02: Watch for Dubya to give Arik political hug
10/31/02: Sharpton the patriot
10/22/02: Rabin, gone but not missed
10/17/02: Israelis bracing for US' punch at Iraq
10/14/02: Geriatric war resisters
09/27/02: Al Gore: The Lost Boy of American politics
09/05/02: The intifadeh's over, and the Israelis won
08/29/02: At the world summit, just anger & hypocrisy
08/21/02: No time for weak knees on Iraq
08/16/02: A pro-Arab pol may get the beating she deserves
08/13/02: Fight it out now
08/02/02: Memo to The Council on Foreign Relations: U.S. values won't sell in Arab world
07/31/02: Israel's nutty neighbors

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