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Netanyahu, Defense Minister Face Off for Likud’s Top Spot

TEL AVIV — When Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced his candidacy to lead Israel’s ruling Likud Party this past Monday, he was not just challenging the party’s presumed heir-apparent, Benjamin Netanyahu. He was indirectly challenging his own political mentor, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had founded the Likud but left it this week. Moreover, Mofaz just might have turned the upcoming parliamentary elections into a genuine three-way nail biter.

The elections, set for March 28, will pit the Likud against its founder, Sharon, and his main coalition partner, the Labor Party, which voted last week to quit the coalition and force new elections. The Likud will choose a new leader December 19, with Mofaz, Netanyahu and four other declared candidates vying to replace Sharon.

The rapid chain of events has turned Israeli politics on its head, but until this week the outcome seemed fairly predictable. The scramble was touched off November 10 when the Labor Party chose a new party leader, trade union populist Amir Peretz, who vowed to take the party out of Sharon’s government, return to the opposition and demand new elections.

In response to the Labor upset, Sharon promptly agreed to call an early election. That heated up speculation, percolating for months, that the prime minister was on the verge of leaving the Likud. The prime minister has been frustrated by months of internal sniping from hardliners in his party, led by Netanyahu, who opposed last summer’s Gaza disengagement.

Last week, after Sharon agreed to elections, polls showed him and Peretz in a dead heat, with the Likud under Netanyahu running a distant third. After the March election Sharon is expected to form a new, center-left coalition with Labor and several smaller parties.

Netanyahu is expected to capture the Likud Party’s reins easily, but Mofaz is seen as a potential spoiler. Polls show Netanyahu trouncing his rivals in a primary, but they also show him leading the Likud to defeat in the general election. Mofaz, while admittedly a long shot, could free the party of Netanyahu’s negative ratings as a military and economic hardliner and put Likud back in the running. Polls over the last two years have consistently shown Mofaz to be one of Israel’s most trusted politicians, just behind Sharon.

Mofaz announced his plans at a dramatic press conference in his office here, just hours after Sharon had called his own press conference to formalize his long-anticipated departure from the Likud.

“After great difficulties I decided to leave the Likud,” Sharon told reporters. “The Likud in its current constellation cannot lead Israel to its national goals. I set up the Likud in order to serve a national idea and give hope to the people of Israel. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.”

Sharon announced that he was creating a new party, tentatively called National Responsibility. He won backing almost immediately from 13 other Likud lawmakers, giving him control of one-third of the party’s Knesset seats and entitling him to a share of the party’s public financing. Among his backers are five current Cabinet ministers, including Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Meir Sheetrit, Gideon Ezra and Abraham Hirchson.

Whether or not Mofaz would join Sharon had been a topic of speculation before Monday’s dueling press conferences. A former army chief of staff, Mofaz first entered politics when Sharon named him defense minister in 2002. He has been one of the prime minister’s closest political allies and confidants in recent years.

In addition to Likud defectors, Sharon is said to be recruiting prominent public figures to join his party, including former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter and Ben-Gurion University president Avishai Braverman. Several Labor figures are also said to be joining him, including Rabbi Michael Melchior and longtime party powerbroker Haim Ramon, who announced Monday that he is leaving Labor.

Insiders in both Sharon and Netanyahu’s inner circles anticipate a battle “to the death” between Sharon’s new list and the Likud. “There is not enough room in the political spectrum for the Likud and Sharon’s new party,” said one of them, describing the situation as a “zero-sum game.”

The new party, one minister close to Sharon told the Forward, “will be defined as a center-right, national and liberal party.”

In his press conference, Sharon said the new party’s two main tasks are “to lay the groundwork for a peace agreement where we will set the country’s permanent borders while insisting on the dismantlement of terror organizations and to address poverty, education gaps, crime and violence in Israel.”

Sharon’s reference to poverty and education gaps appears to be aimed at distancing himself from Netanyahu, his main rival within the Likud. Netanyahu served as Sharon’s finance minister for two years and authored a series of market-oriented reforms that are admired abroad, but widely seen at home as increasing poverty.

Economic discontent, although simmering, was not considered a political threat until Peretz won the Labor primary earlier this month and vowed to put the issue at the top of his agenda.

Just a week after Peretz’s victory, polls showed him gaining strength in traditional Likud strongholds where poverty and unemployment are high. A poll taken last week by Yedioth Aharonot and the Dahaf Institute, questioning residents of 25 Likud-leaning development towns and poor neighborhoods, found 35% of respondents affirming that the Labor Party headed by Peretz represents them. Only 23% said that the Likud headed by Sharon represents them.

This was the first time since Menachem Begin’s Likud upset of 1977 that a Labor candidate has received such a positive response in Likud bastions. Further strengthening Peretz, 43% of respondents said that socioeconomic issues are the main concern affecting their vote, compared to 32% who care more about security and foreign affairs, 9% who cited corruption and 8% who named religion and state.

The sudden surfacing of economic issues has redrawn the Likud leadership race. Both Mofaz and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, another Likud contender, appear to be focusing their primary campaigns on economic issues and blaming Netanyahu for rising poverty. Shalom, announcing his candidacy at a press conference this week, bluntly declared that “the economic policy of the recent period must not continue.”

Mofaz, meanwhile, told supporters Tuesday that Labor’s Peretz is “not more socially oriented than me.”

“I’m familiar with the sounds of distress — that is where I come from,” Mofaz said. He added that the “social danger is greater than the security danger.”

Sharpening the political jockeying are Israel’s long-simmering ethnic divisions. The Likud is traditionally seen as the champion of Israel’s alienated Sephardic population, while Labor is commonly depicted as the voice of the country’s Ashkenazic founding elite. But Peretz, born in Morocco and raised in a Negev development town, appears to have turned that equation on its head. He is the first Sephardic Jew ever to mount a serious candidacy for prime minister.

The issue further separates Netanyahu, a son of the Ashkenazic middle class, from the Iranian-born Mofaz and the Tunisian-born Shalom.

Still, Likud insiders warn that the battle ultimately will be won or lost within the party’s powerful central committee, where Netanyanu has considerable support. “In this arena Mofaz is the weakest of all of them,” one central committee member said, asking not to be identified. “Only a united front backing him would get Mofaz elected. Looking at Netanyahu’s support within the committee, it seems almost imaginary.”

A source close to former Netanyahu told the Forward that “in the long run it is better and more democratic that Ariel Sharon has left the Likud. His agenda is poorly suited to the party and it is better for him to leave than to force the Likud to accept it.”

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