Likud, Smarting from Defeat, Decides to Elect New Leaders

The Likud, smarting from its worst election defeat in 23 years, has decided to reconstitute its leadership, and there is no shortage of candidates for the top post.

Likud ministers in the outgoing Cabinet met Sunday and decided the party would hold primaries by the end of the year, enabling all registered members around the country to participate in the choice of a leader.

The incumbent, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, has indicated he will be leaving the post soon, and already there are a number of hopeful successors waiting eagerly in the wings.

The latest to indicate his interest in the post was Benjamin Netanyahu, the popular deputy minister, who announced Monday that he would run in the primaries.

In a television interview, Netanyahu asserted that Likud supporters had defected in the elections in considerable numbers, not because they disagreed with the Likud’s policies, but because they were turned off by the constant internal struggles within the party leadership.

“People want clean politics,” Netanyahu proclaimed. “I can lead the party toward that goal.”

Other candidates who have indicated their intention to fight for the leadership are Ariel Sharon, David Levy, Ze’ev “Benny” Begin and Meir Sheetrit, the Jewish Agency treasurer who will sit as a Likud member of the new Knesset.

A senior Likud official who will not be running is Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who announced Thursday that he was quitting politics.

‘GREATER ISRAEL’ VISION CRITICIZED

Arens surprised political circles here over the weekend by criticizing some of Likud’s key positions on peace and security, especially its vision of a “Greater Israel” and its refusal to consider giving up the Gaza Strip.

“I was never an activist in the Greater Israel movement,” Arens told the newspaper Hadashot. “I don’t think that slogan solves anything.”

He added that all Israeli governments since 1967 had failed to pay sufficient attention to the Palestinian problem, and continued: “I don’t talk about all of the territories. For instance, I don’t talk about Gaza.

“As regards Judea and Samaria,” he said, “we have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. We cannot ignore their problem.”

Arens also criticized Shamir, with whom he has long been aligned, for disclosing in a newspaper interview last week that he had intended the autonomy negotiations with the Palestinians to drag on “for 10 years.”

“What Shamir said was a mistake,” the outgoing defense minister said. “I do not accept it.

“Maybe what he said is what he felt in his heart,” he added. “Maybe that’s what the public felt: that the Likud is not serious about reaching an autonomy agreement with the Palestinians.”

Likud’s decision to hold primaries is a tacit acknowledgment of Labor’s success this year in reconnecting to an increasingly disaffected public.

For it was Labor that this year became the first Israeli political party to open its internal leadership contest to the entire party membership.

Ariel Sharon, who has always been popular among the more hawkish elements of Likud’s rank and file, said he had “long fought” for the introduction of primaries in the Likud.

But less charismatic Likud politicians were not as pleased by the decision. In a statement Monday, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, outgoing chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the Likud ministers who made the decision Sunday did not constitute an elected party forum and therefore had no authority to decide on any system of electing a new leader.

The only such legitimate decision-making forum is the Knesset faction, he claimed.

Shamir, meanwhile, told the Likud ministers Sunday that he would announce his retirement at a time he thought appropriate. He made it clear that time would be soon.

Several ministers said later that if Shamir left before the primaries, an interim party leadership would be put in place. But some ministers publicly urged Shamir not to step down until an elected replacement could be installed.

NEXT STORY