JERUSALEM (Dec. 19)
Just days before a crucial vote on electoral reform, Ariel Sharon announced Wednesday that he would challenge Yitzhak Shamir for the leadership of Likud and the office of prime minister.
Likud’s huge Central Committee is scheduled to vote by secret ballot Sunday whether to support legislation for the direct election of the prime minister, now before the Knesset.
Shamir opposes the reform. Sharon, who is housing minister and chairman of the Central Committee, is a strong supporter of the bill.
Political observers agree that if the reform measure succeeds, Sharon’s prospects of unseating Shamir would improve. Under the present system, they are close to nil, the observers say.
But Sharon a Likud hawk opposed to the current peace process, savaged Shamir’s policies in a speech Wednesday to about 1,000 sympathizers in Tel Aviv.
He blasted the peace talks in Washington, which recessed this week, the government’s handling of the economy and its immigrant absorption process.
Sharon described the government’s diplomacy as “schlemiel-like.” He called the talks with Palestinians in the State Department corridors “a national disgrace.”
The Prime Minister’s Office responded with the bland statement that Sharon’s criticisms were “neither justified nor proper.”
Although Sharon, as chairman of the Central Committee, will be in charge of the voting Sunday, political commentators predicted the ballot would go heavily against reform.
That is because Shamir, who initially supported the measure, turned against it and exerted his considerable influence in Likud.
But Sharon is not the only prominent Likud member to support reform. His views on that subject are shared by Benjamin Netanyahu, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, and David Magen, the economic planning minister.
They have said publicly they would break party discipline to vote for the bill in the Knesset. The opposition Labor Party also backs reform.
But commentators believe that if Shamir can marshall most of Likud, he could defeat the bill with the support of some of the small parties, which stand to lose much of their leverage if the reform is adopted.
The measure would elect the prime minister by a direct ballot separate from the vote for party lists. It is intended to free the chosen leader of government from the demands of small, special-interest parties, whose support is essential under the present system.