Sharon Gets His Cabinet Post, but His Power Is Diminishing

Yossi Melman, a journalist for the Daily Ha'aretz, is co-author of "Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance" (Hyperion)

With respect to its financial clout, Ariel Sharon occupies one of the most powerful posts in the newly appointed Cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As minister of national infrastructures, an office especially tailored to accommodate his large appetite for power, Sharon is in charge of land, water, energy resources, road construction and sewers. With an annual budget of nearly $2 billion, his ministry is the Cabinet's third largest, after defense and the treasury. Ironically, Sharon has never been less powerful.

His role, status and practical influence in most walks of Israeli life, including the peace process, are diminishing. This was especially evident before Netanyahu visited Washington, met with President Bill Clinton and addressed Congress. For the past 20 years before every U.S. tour by an Israeli prime minister, Sharon would publicly draw the permissible boundaries for any Israeli concession, beyond which officials would hesitate to step. An outspoken supporter of expanding Jewish settlements and an advocate of tough measures against Palestinians, he would warn his leader to play hard to get with the U.S. president. Not this time.

Before Netanyahu's visit, Sharon kept his silence. Maybe it was because of his age. The 67-year-old general-turned-politician has lost some of his vigor. His health is slipping, and he long ago gave up hope of losing weight. He also realizes that, as time passes, his true ambition, to be Israeli prime minister, is receding before his eyes. But Sharon's most urgent task is to heal his injured ego following his humiliation by Netanyahu.

Before last May's elections, Sharon was one of the few leaders of the right-wing Likud bloc who believed, against the odds, that defeat would not be inevitable. His main contribution to Netanyahu's campaign was to mobilize the religious and ultra-orthodox elements in Israel to support the Likud candidate for prime minister. An overwhelming majority (90%) of this constituency voted for Netanyahu.

Sharon took credit for Netanyahu's slim victory and boasted that he would be rewarded with a prestigious post in the new Cabinet. But the new prime minister offered Sharon the ministry of construction and housing. Sharon, who served in that capacity in Yitzhak Shamir's Cabinet, declined. A few hours later, he changed his mind--but not before Netanyahu had concluded a deal with one of the ultra-orthodox parties. "Sorry," Netanyahu told Sharon, "it's too late; the office has gone."

Insulted and angry, Sharon sulked off to his farm, and Netanyahu presented his Cabinet, sans Sharon, to the Knesset. But Sharon's friends, led by Foreign Minister David Levy, intervened. During live coverage of a meeting in the Knesset, Levy declared that if Netanyahu didn't appoint Sharon to a Cabinet post, he would resign. The embarrassed prime minister had to work hard on the eve of his regal visit to the United States. Using both persuasion and threats, he managed to confiscate and annex several departments to carve out Sharon's new empire.

It was Netanyahu's first political crisis, and it taught him a valuable lesson. Although Israel's first directly elected prime minister, he does not enjoy the same executive powers as a U.S. president. He is not the sole master of his Cabinet and his coalition. No less significant, Netanyahu now faces the challenge of the Levy-Sharon connection.

It is an unholy alliance, one that can cause damage. The two differ politically. Levy is less of a political hawk and can be more pragmatic. Yet, for reasons of short-term political gain, they joined forces in 1990 and made life miserable for Shamir, preventing the former prime minister from making concessions to the Bush administration in its efforts to invigorate peace efforts. The Israeli press labeled the duo "handcuffers."

Levy and Sharon still share the same social and economic agenda today. They oppose privatization; they dislike Netanyahu's proposed budget cuts designed to attract foreign investors to Israel.

Few expect Levy to outflank Netanyahu on the right. Instead, he will try to soften up Netanyahu's hard-line approach to defense and foreign affairs. During his U.S. tour, the prime minister did not even grant a symbolic concession to peace. He called Syria a "state sponsoring terrorism" and repeated his commitment to increase the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. With the Israeli media describing the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting as a "failure," Levy stepped in and tried to smooth the government's image. He disclosed that he would meet with Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, within two weeks, and, shortly thereafter, Netanyahu would, too.

Sharon has no intention of meeting with Arafat, whom he still calls a "master terrorist." His world view remains unshakable: Israel should firmly control the West Bank through a strong military presence on the ground, building new settlements, regulating water and land allocations, and wearing an iron glove in the battle against Arab terrorists. But as minister of national infrastructures, Sharon's impact on the peace front may be confined to water issues. Although questions connected to water sharing are vital in the arid Middle East, they will not determine the outcome of overall peace negotiations. In other words, if Israel, under its new prime minister, reaches agreements with Arafat and Syrian President Hafez Assad--a big if--the issue of water will not be an obstacle.

But Sharon cannot be totally dismissed. If the general regains his stamina, he can reclaim his potential to be a significant political force in Israel. With his political and military experience, zeal and personal appeal, Sharon remains, for many Israelis, a symbol of proud nationalism. As such, he could easily challenge Netanyahu's reign.*

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