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Showdown Looms for Sharon in Party Fight

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Sharon traded verbal blows this week with the apparatus of his ruling Likud party, with disputes ranging from pure ideology to naked power in the background. The stage has now been set for a dramatic showdown next month that could have a profound effect on both.

The party’s top decision-making authority, the Likud convention, is to vote in February on a slew of proposals that would impose total central discipline on all party members, from the prime minister on down. Sharon’s policies would require the advice and consent of the Likud Central Committee, and the country would be run, in effect, by party apparatchiks.

The proposals, hyperbolically described this week by one Sharon adviser as “befitting the Nazi party,” reflect the soaring ambitions of the party’s 3,000 delegates in the wake of the decisive Likud victory in last year’s elections. They are also a sign of the growing unrest among Likud activists and functionaries, especially in the far right, over Sharon’s increasingly vocal espousal of a unilateral withdrawal from some Palestinian territories and eventual removal of some Jewish settlements.

In a preliminary round to next month’s main event, Sharon and his adversaries faced off this week in Tel Aviv at a rowdy meeting of the party’s Central Committee. The prime minister repeated his pledge to “disconnect” from the Palestinians and to remove settlements, while hundreds of agitated committee members heckled and booed. “I am the one who will make the decisions,” Sharon proclaimed, as delegates vowed from their seats to impose shackles on his freedom to decide.

The furor was inflamed by comments made to reporters on the eve of the meeting by Education Minister Limor Livnat, who said that “extremists and criminals are trying to take over the Likud.” Livnat explicitly identified the extremists as “the Feiglins,” a reference to right-wing firebrand Moshe Feiglin, whose settler-led “Jewish Leadership” faction is described by opponents as a “Trojan Horse” bent on seizing control of the ruling party.

Livnat refrained, however, from specifying the criminals she had in mind. Press reports over the past year have described shady relationships between reputed gangland figures and some local Likud branch leaders, suggesting that underworld elements have gained influence within the party apparatus.

Delegates on the floor boisterously protested Livnat’s characterization, but they did little to dispel it. Continuous booing greeted both Livnat and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has emerged as the party’s leading advocate of territorial compromise. The most sustained ovation went to Knesset member Naomi Blumenthal, a former deputy minister recently indicted on charges of bribery and suborning witnesses during last year’s Likud primaries. Almost as enthusiastic was the greeting given to Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, who embarrassed Sharon this week by unveiling an ambitious plan to expand settlements on the Golan Heights, just as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was sending out signals of peace.

Sharon, for his part, appeared to revel in the uproar, relying on his oft-used tactic of blunt confrontation with the unpopular party apparatchiks as a way to burnish his public image as a moderate. Media pundits decried Sharon’s cynical “ritual,” as the daily Ha’aretz termed it, but Sharon had the final word, appearing in headlines and televised images as a fearless pragmatist willing to risk all for peace.

Sharon’s advisers and confidantes, who have debated his real intentions in the past, are now unanimous that Sharon means business this time around. By summer, or year’s end at the latest, they say, Sharon will redeploy the army to new lines in the West Bank and Gaza and order the evacuation of several Jewish settlements. And by “settlements,” they add, Sharon is not just speaking of the so-called “unauthorized outposts,” 28 of which are now on the short list for early removal. Rather, they say, he is preparing to identify certain full-fledged and established settlements that will be “relocated” to other areas, behind the newly-drawn borders.

When he first outlined his intentions in a speech in Herzliya last month, Sharon said he would order a unilateral redeployment only if there is a failure of efforts to restart talks with the Palestinians, under President Bush’s so-called “road map” to Middle East peace. But his advisers are privately dismissing hopes of an agreement. They describe the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, as a “dead duck” with no hope of redemption. Despite a lull of nearly three months in serious suicide attacks, government officials and army officers say that Yasser Arafat is personally blocking any serious Palestinian effort to rein in the terrorists. The time for Israel to “take its future into its own hands,” as Sharon once put it, is rapidly approaching.

On the left, Sharon’s promises are widely viewed as disingenuous. Labor party spokeswoman Dalia Itzik called this week’s convention speech “just talk.” Most in the opposition suspect his sole aim is to blunt the mounting public criticism of his perceived inaction in solving the Palestinian problem. Sharon is keenly aware, critics say, of the Bush administration’s firm opposition to any unilateral measures, especially ones aimed at “consolidating” Israel’s hold on parts of the West Bank. Under this scenario, the prime minister is counting on eventual American objections to his plans for partial withdrawal to provide an excuse for maintaining the status quo.

Other critics, further left, see a more sinister plot. Sharon, they say, is harnessing the public’s clamor for change and “separation” from the Palestinians in order to carry out his plan of establishing Palestinian “Bantustans” on less than half of the West Bank. The route mapped out for the security fence deep inside the West Bank, along with a proposed “eastern fence” that would separate Palestinian areas from the Jordan River, are all aimed, according to this theory, at creating isolated Palestinian enclaves surrounded and easily controlled by the army and the settlements.

Tellingly, even such expansionist designs are dismissed by “the Feiglins,” who reject evacuation of any settlements and oppose any withdrawal from areas beyond the six biggest Palestinians cities in the West Bank. Some of the proposals to be submitted to the Likud convention next month expressly forbid the removal of any settlements without explicit party approval in advance. Other measures would threaten Likud Knesset members with de facto excommunication if they vote against the party line. If the measures are approved, the Likud would disown Sharon and others who voice support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which the party’s Central Committee has voted to oppose.

Along with the ideological showdown, the Central Committee is also serving as a staging ground for various “questionable elements” hoping to use the party as a mechanism for securing financial favors, top-flight jobs and possible refuge from criminal investigations. Only a few central Likud activists can boast of actual criminal records, but many more are said to be seeking to use their new political clout to persuade the party’s ministers and parliamentarians to bend the rules in their favor.

In the weeks leading up to last February’s election, in the wake of widespread tales of wrongdoing in the December 2002 Likud primaries, Sharon publicly vowed to “eradicate corruption” from the party. He pledged to overhaul its electoral system, which lets the closed circle of Central Committee members choose the party’s Knesset slate. Following his landslide reelection, however, Sharon seemed to lose much of his zeal for reform, and the delegates themselves are fighting tooth and nail to retain their current power and influence. In fact, at next month’s convention the party apparatchiks will also attempt to seize from the party’s general membership the right to select and choose the party leader, who is also their candidate for the post of prime minister.

Lurking in the background of the pitched battle between the prime minister and his party apparatus is the ominous shadow of the continuing criminal investigations against Sharon, which are due to be concluded, one way or another, in the coming weeks. With Sharon facing potential embarrassment at best, and possible indictment and removal from office at worst, the battle for the soul of the Central Committee might be viewed as the opening maneuver in the expected campaign to anoint Sharon’s successor.

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