Israeli rivals await vote

Likud Party matter seen as Netanyahu, Sharon showdown

September 26, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun foreign reporter

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been basking in international praise in recent weeks after his government's successful evacuation of Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from the Gaza Strip.

But back home, the 77-year- old leader is facing a rebellion within his own political party, whose members, led by Sharon's rival Benjamin Netanyahu, are seeking to oust him as punishment for the Gaza withdrawal.

A Likud Party vote scheduled for today will decide the seemingly minor concern of when the party will hold a primary for choosing its leadership. But this internal party matter is widely viewed as a showdown between Netanyahu and Sharon over their conflicting visions of Israel, their party and the chances for peace with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu, a party hard-liner who quit Sharon's Cabinet in protest of the Gaza pullout, is seeking to hold the Likud primary in November, months earlier than planned, and hoping to wrest control from Sharon as party leader and force early national elections.

Sharon is urging the party to conduct the primary in late spring, as scheduled, prolonging the life of his government until mandatory national elections late next year.

A defeat today for Sharon might have a far-reaching impact on Israeli politics and prospects for Middle East peace.

Netanyahu would be the new party leader in all but name and be empowered to steer the Likud Party sharply away from Sharon's recent centrist policies and embrace a far-right agenda of settlement expansion and fewer concessions, if any, to the Palestinians.

If he were to lose today's vote, Sharon could decide to quit Likud and form a new, more centrist party that might attract the majority of voters who polls say supported the withdrawal from Gaza.

During a raucous meeting of the Likud Central Committee last night in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu appealed to Jewish settlers and the far right, whose cause Sharon championed for decades before he announced the plan to leave Gaza. Many of them feel deeply betrayed by Sharon's turnabout and say the Gaza pullout will endanger Israel.

"We evacuated settlements until the last centimeter, whole families were taken from their house, the dead were taken from their graves, synagogues were burnt to cheers without any agreement, without a quid pro quo. What did we get for all this suffering?" Netanyahu asked the crowd of cheering and heckling party members.

In a direct reference to Sharon and his determination to move ahead with the withdrawal -- despite widespread objections within his own party -- Netanyahu asked: "Are we a democratic movement or the movement of one person who ignores all our decisions?"

Sharon was scheduled to speak after Netanyahu, but Sharon's opponents poured a bucket of water over part of the public-address system, ruining the microphone, a party spokesman told the Israeli news media.

After two attempts to use the microphone, Sharon walked out of the hall, and the meeting ended.

According to the text of his speech distributed to the news media, Sharon had planned to warn Likud that a vote for an early primary would destroy the party.

"Tomorrow's vote is not a technical vote, it is a move to depose me and an expression of nonconfidence in a way in which the Likud has led the state. It is all because of a feeling of vengeance and unrestrained personal ambition," he said in the prepared text. "This will be a suicide that will crush the Likud and lead it to only one place, the opposition."

Saying Israel must be willing to compromise to ensure peace, he also discussed the dangers of Zionist extremism.

"We must say the truth that each and everyone knows. When we will get to [negotiations with Palestinians] not everything will remain in our hands," he said. "You cannot maintain a Jewish democratic state and control all the parts of the land of Israel. If we shall insist on fulfilling the entire dream, we might lose everything, simply everything. That is where the extremist path leads to."

Today's vote is likely to be very close, although Netanyahu enjoys an edge in most polls of party members. A survey conducted over the weekend by the Israeli daily Ma'ariv found that a majority -- 50.7 percent-- of the Likud Central Committee members favored Netanyahu's plan to move up the primary.

But other polls indicate that if Sharon resigns from Likud and sets up a new party, he would pose a serious political threat to Netanyahu. In a poll published in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Sharon's new party would win 36 seats in national elections while Netanyahu's Likud would win 14. If Sharon remained Likud's party leader, Likud would capture 43 seats.

Netanyahu appears to be banking on his prediction that Israel's pullout will descend Gaza into chaos and violence, creating new dangers for Israel.

A weekend of turmoil in the Gaza Strip could help his chances in today's vote.

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