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Israeli Premier Is Better Liked by Public Than Party

Mideast: Sharon's actions are partly shaped in reaction to Benjamin Netanyahu's greater popularity within Likud, analysts say.


JERUSALEM — Why would an Israeli prime minister warn the United States, Israel's closest ally, not to sell out his country the way European democracies betrayed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis on the eve of World War II? Reject U.S. demands to pull troops out of areas of the West Bank, even after his army says its mission there is completed? Cancel a scheduled meeting with the U.S. president, the sort of tete-a-tete world leaders normally vie for?

When the prime minister is Ariel Sharon, a former general with a long track record of blunt talk, confrontational diplomacy and controversial military moves, the explanation might seem to lie in his personality or political ideology.

But Sharon's statements and actions in the past month, analysts here say, reflect his domestic political problems at least as much as his personal preferences. He sits at the head of the largest coalition government in Israel's history and continues to enjoy high popularity ratings with the Israeli voting public. But Sharon is a man with an embarrassing, potentially dangerous political problem: The public likes him more than his own party does.

Whether he's talking tough to the United States or acting tough with the Palestinians, Sharon's actions can only be understood as being at least partly shaped by what Israelis call "the Bibi factor."

Bibi is the nickname of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the telegenic hawk from Sharon's Likud Party whom Israelis voted out of office in May 1999, three years into his 4 1/2-year term. When Netanyahu was defeated by Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak, many wrote his political obituary.

In a recent opinion poll conducted for the Maariv newspaper, 38% of voters questioned said they would prefer to see Sharon as Likud's chairman and candidate for prime minister, and 31% preferred Netanyahu. But among right-wing voters, 49% preferred Netanyahu and 38% preferred Sharon.

"The fact is that by all reckonings and accounts, including internal polls taken among Likud Central Committee members, Netanyahu is far more popular than Sharon" in the party, said Yossi Olmert, a former Central Committee member still active in the party who said he supports Netanyahu. "Netanyahu has been and is and will be the darling of the rank and file in the Likud."

That political reality means that Sharon has relatively little room to maneuver politically or diplomatically, despite his broad-based coalition. Day after day, Sharon--long the symbol of the nationalist right and champion of the Jewish settlement movement--finds himself under pressure from Netanyahu for failing to make good on his campaign promise of bringing security and peace.

"Sharon's game is a game of survival," said Gideon Doron, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "He has to worry all the time about this 40% of the voting public that supposedly favors Netanyahu. If he goes too far to the left, he is going to lose them. If he goes too far to the right, he is going to lose Labor from his government. So the status quo is what makes him survive politically."

In interviews, lectures and frequent appearances at Likud offices around the country, Netanyahu doesn't directly criticize the prime minister. Instead, he promises that he has the solution to the nation's security problems that has eluded Sharon since his election in February. And people are listening.

Netanyahu offers a tantalizing alternative vision to those on the right end of the political spectrum who hate Sharon's decision, after crushing Barak in the election, to bring the defeated Labor Party into his coalition as his most important partner, and who despise his dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres.

Right-wingers inside and outside Likud see Sharon as a man shackled by Labor's insistence that Israel not give up on making peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, in contrast, promises that if he leads Likud to victory in the next elections, he will make good on the right's slogan: "Let the IDF win," a code phrase meaning: Let the army (Israel Defense Forces) do whatever it takes to smash the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat.

"The reason people want Bibi back is twofold," said Haim Bashari, a political advisor to Netanyahu. "It is a combination between ideology and personality. People miss the principle of standing firm against the Palestinians, something that we don't see now. The time has come for someone to put Arafat back in his place, and the only one in today's political scene that can do that is Bibi."

With Netanyahu as an option, Sharon apparently fears that one or more of the ultranationalist parties will bolt from his coalition, starting a chain of defections that could cause the government to fall before its term expires in 2003. He would then have to call new elections, and would almost certainly face Netanyahu in a battle for the leadership of Likud. Many analysts say they believe his chances of beating the former prime minister are slim.

"Bibi would win if there were elections in the Likud right now," said Eli Cohen, a Central Committee member who says he isn't a supporter of Netanyahu but feels Sharon has betrayed the party's ideology.

Cohen recently participated in a gathering of six anti-Sharon factions, called after the prime minister said that he could support the establishment of a truncated, demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under certain conditions.

The declaration, Cohen said, galvanized opposition to Sharon.

"The question for us is, is Sharon doing his job or not?" Cohen said. "Here is Mr. Security, but did he fall into the same trap as Barak, the trap of not letting the army do its job because of pressure from the United States?"

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