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Behind the Headlines: Latest Round of Likud Battle Centers on Date, Time and Place

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The dispute in the Likud bloc over Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s peace plan is heading toward a major collision, with disagreement currently centered on the unlikely issue of the time and place of the party’s upcoming Central Committee meeting.

Shamir and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens want to convene the meeting on the afternoon of July 4 in Tel Aviv, while three other powerful Likud members insist the meeting take place on the evening of July 2 in Jerusalem.

Although the date and venue of the meeting is temporarily the bone of contention, the issue at the center of the power struggle is the prime minister’s peace initiative, which was approved last month by both the Cabinet and the Knesset, and will be voted on at the Likud meeting.

Opposing the plan are Industry and Trade Minister Ariel Sharon, Housing Minister David Levy and Yitzhak Moda’i, a minister without portfolio who heads the Liberal Party wing of Likud. They argue that the initiative in its present form will result in a Palestinian state.

Shamir and Arens say that changes in the plan proposed by the opposition will make it unacceptable to both the Arabs and the United States.

The tally of Likud Central Committee members who endorse the peace plan and oppose it is uncertain, but it is believed to be very close. Both sides believe a few votes may tip the balance.

Shamir’s camp is concerned that if the meeting is held on the evening of July 2 in Jerusalem, Sharon, who is chairman of the Central Committee, could delay the vote on the peace plan until late at night, when some Shamir supporters — many of whom are older and live in the Tel Aviv area — could either leave early without voting or cut the debate short.

WASHINGTON IS CONCERNED

The vote is a battle Shamir cannot afford to lose. If the committee rejects the peace plan, it will be viewed as a vote of “no confidence” in Shamir by his own party. Acknowledging this, the prime minister has threatened to resign if Likud does not endorse the initiative.

In Washington, senior officials in the Bush administration told the Israeli newspaper Hadashot that they fear both instability in the Israeli government and an escalation in the Palestinian uprising if the Central Committee rejects Shamir’s plan.

The committee meeting and the vote were scheduled after Sharon and his allies complained that Shamir sought international support for the plan without consulting his own party. Under heavy pressure, Shamir agreed to put the matter before the committee.

It originally had been agreed to convene the committee on July 2. But the cavernous Tel Aviv Cinerama building, one of the few larges enough for the gathering, was not available on that date, so the meeting was put back to July 4.

But Sharon’s aides, speaking for the minister, who was overseas, said Wednesday they had already sent invitations to committee members to convene in Jerusalem on July 2.

In a countermove Thursday, the Likud Secretariat, which is chaired by Arens, ruled that the meeting would day, Sharon reacted saying the Secretariat decision was illegal and that, as Central Committee chairman, it was he who had the right to determine the time and place of the meeting.

Israeli newspapers said Sunday that Shamir is losing patience with Sharon and is considering moving to throw him out of Likud.

In a secret poll conducted by the Shamir-Arens camp, 1,175 Central Committee members were asked whether they would support it, 88 said they would oppose it, 151 were undecided and 371 refused to participate in the survey.

Observers here speculated Sunday that Shamir and his opponents would reach some form of compromise before the meeting, in the hope of avoiding a general showdown over the peace plan.

But if the issue comes to a head, they are predicting that the meeting will far outshine the 13th Maccabiah Games as being “the best show in town.”

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