The New York Times
The Comeback Likudnik
By WILLIAM SAFIRE       May 5, 2004

I have not spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon since a majority of half the members of his Likud Party — about 1 percent of Israel's population — expressed their displeasure with his plan to withdraw the most vulnerable settlements from Gaza and the West Bank. 
Here is what I imagine Arik is thinking. 

The loss of the party referendum is a setback.  After two landslide election victories, I grew overconfident and misjudged the power of the settlers' "rewarding terrorists" message. But it was a skirmish in a lifelong series of battles, not a personal defeat. I am a survivor.

What are my options?

One: To resign? Never.  I have three years to serve before re-election, and my mission is to ensure the security of Israel.  Neither the nation nor I will retreat under fire.

Option 2: To disrespect the vote of the settler movement — my people, all brave Jews — who oppose what I promised would be painful compromises?  Of course not.  Though the party vote was not legally binding, it's sort of politically binding, which brings up—— 

Option 3: To modify my disengagement plan, giving more weight to my old supporters' objections.  Relocate a few, not all, of the Gaza settlements, and a couple in Samaria to establish the principle that holding all the land the Palestinians want would endanger our security.  Our old dream is no longer attainable, if we are to have a secure Jewish state; it's time for a new dream.

Option 4: To negotiate that new limited disengagement plan with the 22 members of my cabinet, calming everybody on the far right and proceeding more slowly than I had hoped, though going full speed on the fence.  I cannot back away too much on relocating our settlers or my coalition would lose Tomi Lapid's Shinui Party, and he's with me more than some of my own cabinet Likudniks.

About them: my deputy Ehud Olmert has been stalwart — even ahead of me — and would make a fine prime minister someday.  Same with Shaul Mofaz at Defense; the Army doesn't want 10,000 troops defending 7,500 settlers in Gaza.  But Bibi is Bibi, taking no chances.  If the cabinet freezes, which I doubt, I could——

Option 5: Go to the Knesset with a bill calling for a national referendum on limited disengagement.  If all the opinion polls mean anything, the great majority of Israelis, left and right, are with me.  Some say a binding referendum would take months, and suggest a national private "poll of polls."  No; I will lead, not follow. 

Option 6: I could listen to Shimon Peres, who wants quick elections.  He thinks Labor would pick up seats from Likud — and Shimon, in his 80's, can't wait three long years to run again.  But his back-to-Oslo habit is a sure loser; Labor would be smarter taking up Lapid's idea of a unity government now with me.

My choice is Option 4, the modified disengagement plan, with a possibility of taking it to the Knesset later.  Just this week, right after the Likud surprise, the Knesset supported me strongly on a vote of confidence about the economy.  With all the brouhaha in the world press about last Sunday's crushing defeat, I'm still by far the most popular politician in Israel. 

But no more overconfidence.  I know that many on the left and in the center tolerate me because "only Arik can bring along the right."  So I have to take more care to convince my old comrades in Gaza, Judea and Samaria that building a defensible national perimeter is the road to security now and to peace later.

If I can't bring along a large part of the right — who can?  And if not at this critical time — when?

In times of trial, allies show their true colors. President Bush turned American policy away from Ehud Barak's dangerous concessions and toward realism in creating two separate states.  His policy letter of last month will be remembered as historic and helpful when Jews and Arabs reach a final agreement someday.  Despite criticism from leaders in Europe and the Middle East, Bush lets nobody — including the king of Jordan this week, who requested a letter weakening the U.S. letter to us — drive a wedge between our two democracies.

I'm guessing that's what Sharon thinks as he calms his compatriots and moves ahead.  I know it's what I think.