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Bitter Divisions Could Split Likud Party

TEL AVIV – For the first time in Israeli history, the ruling party has started the process of deposing a reigning prime minister — and its quite possible that the internal Likud fight could mean defeat for both sides.

Barely two-and-a-half years after enjoying its most resounding victory in the polls, the Likud is about to embark on a political move against the man who brought about this unparalleled victory, Prime Minister Sharon. The result may be the fall not only of Sharon himself, but also of his challengers and many who gleefully support them. It may also bring about a breaking up of the party, which ruled Israel for all but seven of the last 28 years.

The fight heated up this week as former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 — formally launched his long-expected challenge to Sharon on Tuesday, just days after the successful evacuation of all the Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank. After previously voting for the plan, Netanyahu quit the Cabinet last month just days before the Gaza pullout was about to begin, warning that unilateral disengagement was a dangerous and ill-advised step that threatened Israel’s security and betrayed the principles of the Likud.

According to polls conducted among the 160,000 Likud members who would vote in Likud primaries, Netanyahu enjoys a seemingly insurmountable double-digit lead, perhaps as large as 17%.

However, the picture among the general public is completely different: A Sharon-led Likud would no doubt win the general elections comfortably; but should Netanyahu emerge as the party leader, the number of Likud members in the next Knesset could decline by anywhere from 10 to 15 seats. Thus, many of the Likud rebels, who adamantly supported Netanyahu’s resignation and his decision to challenge for the leadership of the party, could in fact lose their cherished parliamentary seats should he win the primaries.

The confusion doesn’t end there. Should Sharon lose — and this seems almost a given unless something unexpected happens inside the party — he would have the option of leaving the party, perhaps followed by some leaders, including key political ally Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s replacement as finance minister.

Sharon could then join with the centrist anti-clerical Shinui Party, or even — as unbelievable as it may sound — the Labor Party.

At least in public opinion polls, the so-called “three old men party” — led by Sharon, Labor chairman Shimon Peres and Shinui chairman Yosef Lapid — could turn the political table completely upside down.

Although some of Sharon’s closest advisers advocate this move, at least for now it seems like a remote possibility. Sharon knows all too well that even Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, failed miserably when he ran on his name alone, outside the Labor Party. The fate of other popular leaders, including Moshe Dayan and Sharon himself (who led his own splinter party, Shlomzion, in 1977), was even worse. Sharon will fight to the end inside the Likud, trying to convince the party members that he would be their only guarantee for victory and power.

Even by the often-acrimonious standards of Israeli politics, Sharon and Netanyahu’s dislike for each other is intense. It was evident when Netanyahu formed his government in 1996, when he tried to keep Sharon out of the Cabinet. Only a power move by former foreign minister David Levy forced Netanyahu to give Sharon a seat in the Cabinet. On Tuesday, however, Levy was one of several Likud Knesset members standing by Netanyahu’s side at the press conference when he announced his challenge against Sharon.

Netanyahu chose to attack Sharon on the thing that irritated Likud members most: the prime minister’s apparent refusal to obey the will of the party. In particular, many party members are still angry that Sharon pushed ahead with the disengagement plan after it was rejected in a referendum of Likud voters.

“The man who received our votes to lead the Likud way has turned his back on us,” Netanyahu said. “Sharon has forsaken the Likud principals and has chosen to lead in the spirit of the left.”

Referring to Sharon’s instrumental role in uniting three parties to create the Likud under the leadership of the late Menachem Begin, Netanyahu said, the prime minister was “threatening to destroy the house he built himself.”

Netanyahu pledged to remain within the Likud fold regardless of the primary results, and he urged Sharon to take a similar vow.

The otherwise meticulously scripted press conference was reportedly foiled by a Sharon supporter who managed to sneak in and began jeering Netanyahu.

But the heckling paled in comparison to Sharon’s attacks on Netanyahu the day before, during an interview with Israel’s Channel 10. Sharon called Netanyahu “panicky, folding under stress, unfit to lead.” To run Israel, Sharon said, “you need a cool head and nerves of steel — and [Netanyahu] lacks both.”

The political turmoil will surely worsen in the coming days.

The Labor Party, still in a rift over its own primaries, will now likely have to hurry and elect its own leader.

A few hours after Netanyahu’s press conference, former prime minister Ehud Barak called on his fellow Laborites to unite behind Peres, whom Netanyahu narrowly defeated to become prime minister in 1996. Barak unseated Netanyahu three years later, before losing to Sharon in 2000.

“I would prefer it were me,” Barak said. “But I know the people in question, and I am practical. Peres is much better than Sharon and Netanyahu.”

The other potential Labor challengers, however, declined to step aside — further assuring that Israel is headed into what is shaping up to be its most stormy political season yet.

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