TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon emerged from his latest battle against top Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu with an unexpected victory and a significant bounce in the polls. But Israeli political players and prognosticators still are guessing whether Sharon will stay put in the Likud Party or jump ship to form a new, centrist party.
A Haaretz-Dialog poll released Wednesday found that Likud voters now favor Sharon over Netanyahu by a 47.6% to 33.8% margin — a near reversal from the situation six weeks ago, when Netanyahu appeared to be pulling ahead on objections of Likud members to the Gaza pullout carried out by the premier. The poll was conducted after Sharon scored an unexpected, albeit narrow, 104-vote victory in the 3,000-member Likud Central Committee. The Likud leaders were ostensibly deciding whether to move the party’s primaries up three months from April, but all sides viewed the vote as a referendum on Sharon’s leadership and Netanyahu’s bid to unseat him. A vote to hold the primaries in 60 days would have been viewed as a rejection of Sharon and likely brought about the immediate collapse of his government — the first time a sitting Israeli premier would have been dumped by his own party.
Despite Sharon’s surprise win, a day after the vote Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, reported that the most likely scenario was that he would now leave the Likud — from a position of strength — to start a new party committed to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan calling for Palestinian terrorists to be disarmed and for the creation of a Palestinian state. The New York Times on Wednesday published an editorial calling on Sharon to choose the option of creating a new party, arguing that “it would be better for him to abandon Likud for good than abandon real hope for peace in the Middle East.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu said he plans to fight on.
“I plan to run in the primaries,” Netanyahu said Tuesday. “There is no question about it. There is a large ideological camp here, and I expect it to continue until we win.”
Monday’s vote was one of the most dramatic decisions ever made by the Likud Central Committee. It came after a nerve-wracking day and a neck-and-neck battle. Immediately after the results were announced, Sharon’s camp improvised a large victory party in the large auditorium at the Exhibition Grounds. The prime minister kept the atmosphere stately, promising immediately after the results were announced: “I will also win the party primary and lead the Likud to a great electoral victory. It was important to me personally that we win, but also generally for the party.”
Sharon’s people were blunter, claiming that Sharon now is demanding that Netanyahu and Sharon’s other Likud challenger, Uzi Landau, announce a “halt to the mutiny” in the Likud. One of Sharon’s closest advisers told the Forward: “We will not forget what was done by Ministers Limor Livnat, Danny Naveh and Yisrael Katz or by the coalition chairman, Gidon Saar — their betrayal of the prime minister at the last moment … We will settle accounts with everyone, but not now.”
Eyal Arad, the prime minister’s highest-ranking strategist, was a little more restrained, saying only: “Let us enjoy the victory before we go on to the next step.”
None of the weekend polls had predicted the results of the Central Committee vote. Most analysts in the media predicted a Netanyahu victory, based on the Likud members’ objections to Sharon’s disengagement plan. Monday’s vote, according to this view, was to mark, as one analyst put it, the return of the king — the favorite of the party activists who form the Likud’s base.
It was not for lack of effort that Netanyahu fell short. By all accounts, he worked hard to shore up support, visiting key strongholds and old-time party elders, like the ones recently gathered in southern Tel Aviv, inside a small auto body shop. All were in their late 70s, former members of the Jewish right-wing underground organizations that fought the British occupation before the establishment of the State of Israel. In the early 1970s, when Menachem Begin, their leader since the days of the underground, called on them to help establish the Likud, they all obeyed and became founding fathers. Today these stalwarts number about 1,000, with the Likud constitution promising them 300 seats in the Central Committee. Their ideological influence is considered much larger — and hence they all were courted in recent weeks by the top echelon of the Likud.
“They all came here, one by one,” said Jacob Shitrit, 78, of Tel Aviv, sitting under a framed, hand-signed photo of Begin. “We told them that we stand united against Sharon. We respect him but we cannot tolerate a leader who was willing to give up parts of the land of Israel. Therefore, we could not invite Sharon here. He was the only one not invited.”
Netanyahu’s entourage visited nearly every corner of the country in preparation for the meeting of the Central Committee, while trying to avoid any political mistakes. He addressed activists in the field who are driven by a passion for revenge against Sharon — who say Sharon betrayed the old ways of the Likud and disregarded the results of the Likud referendum that rejected the disengagement.
Adding to the sense that Netanyahu was headed toward victory was a series of violent incidents involving Hamas. A day before the crucial Likud meeting, Hamas launched a rocket barrage against Israel, leading Sharon’s critics to argue that disengagement had brought no security. Even before the attacks, many Central Committee members were skeptical about the Gaza pullout. Now things seemed even worse for Sharon.
Netanyahu went on Israeli television to argue that “the soft underbelly of Sharon’s big move has been exposed.” On Sunday, reading the headlines of the morning papers, Netanyahu, as one of his friends told the Forward, felt that the Likud was in his hands once again and that “victory was assured.”
Twelve hours later, after giving a 20-minute charismatic speech to members of the Central Committee, Netanyahu sat down, back in his place with the Likud Knesset members, and waited for his rival’s speech. Smiling to the crowd, Netanyahu seemed to be on top of the world. Minutes later, everything collapsed.
As Sharon delivered the first part of his speech, a saboteur cut the microphone wires. After waiting for a few minutes, looking somewhat upset, Sharon — who just a week earlier spoke to the United Nations General Assembly and was cheered by the international community — left the hall surrounded by his top aides and body guards. The flap brought the Sunday meeting to an end, leaving activists in both camps blaming the other side for the act of sabotage. But in the end, it appeared to shift the momentum in Sharon’s favor. And he carried the vote the next day.
But sources in Sharon’s inner political circle told the Forward that not all of his advisers are happy with the result. “There are those of us who see the victory as glorious, especially taking in account the last week’s polls,” one Sharon adviser said. “Others did not give up on promoting the idea of Sharon leaving the Likud and establishing a new party with [Shinui Party leader] Yosef Lapid and [Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres.” Sharon’s other partners in a new party reportedly would include Likud stalwart and the former justice minister, Dan Meridor; former head of the Shin Bet security services Avi Dichter, and Avishai Braverman, president of Ben Gurion University.
“It is not tactical to talk about it now,” the Sharon adviser said. “But now that we have proved that we are not afraid of challenges, and persuaded the majority of the Likud members to back us, we are more than able to go out and come back after the new elections, heading a block that would never do to Sharon what the Likudniks tried to do. I don’t think it will happen soon, but only a naïve person would rule out this option.”
As for Netanyahu, a source close to him told the Forward that the challenger is going to rest for the next few days. According to the source, Netanyahu plans to visit some of his supporters in the United States and consult with them before planning his next move.