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Could Sharon now live on in Bibi?

    The Israelis who eulogised Ariel Sharon at his memorial and funeral on Monday either ignored or referred only in passing to his final political acts — the disengagement from Gaza and his departure from Likud to set up his new centrist party, Kadima.

    His two foreign eulogisers, American Vice President Joe Biden and Tony Blair, put more of an emphasis on Sharon’s “difficult decisions” — but made do with generalisations.

    What remained unsaid were the question marks looming over the man sitting in the centre of the front row, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Will he eventually walk in Sharon’s footsteps?

    Faced with a very similar dilemma to the one Sharon dealt with a decade ago — mounting international pressure to achieve a breakthrough with the Palestinians and an increasingly right-wing Likud opposed to any significant concessions or withdrawal — how will Mr Netanyahu act? His own eulogy provided no sign.

    He admitted: “I didn’t always agree with Arik, and he didn’t always agree with me,” but preferred not to dwell on any details, extolling instead the Sharon who established the IDF’s core values and who protected Israel’s strategic alliance with the US but always stood up for Israel’s vital interests. Among those interests, the prime minister mentioned only Israel’s determination to deny Iran a nuclear weapon — he said nothing on the diplomatic conundrum he faces and how it completely mirrors that faced by Sharon.

    Will Netanyahu “do a Sharon?” There are few clues and most of them are contradictory. Last week in a meeting with Likud parliamentarians he explained at length why Israel must adopt the two-state solution if it wants to avoid becoming a bi-national state, while at the same time insisting that he would not relinquish hold on places “of historical importance to the Jewish people” such as Hebron. For six months, he has been engaged in talks which are supposed to lead to a peace agreement based on the pre-1967 borders, but has refused to commit to their outcome.

    On the other hand, he has travelled a long way from his old position, according to which he resolutely opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state.

    The indefatigable US State Secretary John Kerry still seems to believe that Mr Netanyahu is capable of delivering while, by all accounts, President Shimon Peres has given up hope and is already planning to campaign against the prime minister once he is liberated from the shackles of office in six months.

    And even if he was capable of crossing the rubicon, critics insist that “Bibi is no Arik”. They say he lacks Sharon’s decisiveness to carry out such a move and will lose all support in Likud if he tries. Were he to try to split the party as Sharon did, only a tiny handful — much less than the required one-third of its MKs — would follow him.

    The latest theory in the political rumour mill has Avigdor Lieberman, who suddenly is sounding much more moderate, supporting a peace plan and joining Mr Netanyahu, along with his Yisrael Beiteinu MKs, in a break for the centre-ground.

    Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lieberman joining forces to recreate Sharon’s historic move, dismantling settlements and decimating the right wing in the process?

    It sounds outlandish, but then so would have any similar prediction in early 2003. Then prime minister Sharon announced that the isolated Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim was “just like Tel Aviv”. A year later he would announce his disengagement plan and by the end of 2005, he had severed all his connections with Likud.

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