Disarray in the Top Echelons Tests Likud’s Room to Maneuver

Dramatic struggles within the Likud’s upper echelons are sapping the strength of the opposition party, leaving it unprepared to tackle Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s coalition or to take advantage of public unease with the peace accord.

While some political observers think Rabin’s government could unravel amid a host of political uncertainties, their assessment of the Likud’s prospects is no more generous.

“The Labor-Meretz government is just about ready to fall,” wrote Emuna Elon, a popular, right-of-center columnist for the newspaper Ma’ariv. “But the tragedy is that there is no alternative to take its place.”

She may have exaggerated the weakness of Rabin’s coalition, but her evaluation of the state of affairs among the leadership of Likud seemed to hit the mark.

The Likud leaders, she wrote, “are stuck in the mire of their own egos.”

“Some of them do have fighting spirit,” Elon said. “But they direct it all at infighting between themselves.”

Elon’s criticisms this week of Likud came on the heels of a dramatic worsening of relations among the top echelon of the Likud.

Ariel Sharon triggered the latest downturn with a frontal attack on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud known here popularly as “Bibi.”

Earlier this month, Sharon made the clear-cut pronouncement – his first in recent years – that he wants to run for the Likud leadership and then for prime minister.

The hard-line former defense minister took aim at Netanyahu for his inability to arouse widespread support among the Likud rank and file against last September’s sudden accord between Rabbi and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Sharon, who previously stood aloof from the race for leader of the Likud, has claimed that it is shortsighted and unfair of the party to have installed a neophyte like Netanyahu as its leader for the entire parliamentary term and into the next general election, which must be held by 1996.

Sharon said opposition to the self-rule accord – which in the eyes of the right wing spells mortal danger for Israel – requires bolder, more imaginative and more experienced leadership than Netanyahu, 44, is able to provide.

On Jan. 4, Sharon proposed a new round of “primaries” to give the party faithful another shot at choosing their leader.

This time, he promised, he will run.

“I don’t know if Bibi or anyone else has the answers for our present plight. But I know I do,” said Sharon, never noted for his modesty.

Likud insiders are saying a renewed leadership battle now or soon is unlikely if only because the party constitution requires a 75 percent majority in the Likud Central Committee to force such a move.

But many of those same insiders say in private that the party is unhappy with its performance under Netanyahu’s leadership.

His critics note how the recent anti-government, anti-accord demonstrations in Jerusalem and around the country were attended mainly by religious-Zionist youngsters rather than grass-roots voters for Likud.

Many senior figures in the Likud Knesset faction are thought to be uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s meteoric rise to the leadership.

They regard him as a political lightweight, a master of the television sound bite rather than a person of profound or single-minded political thinking.

In this context, these Likud critics note how Netanyahu originally announced he would honor the agreement with the PLO if he came to power.

But, they point out, he recently changed that stance, arguing that Arafat had violated the accord by failing to revoke portions of the Palestine National Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.

The critics claim this zigzagging by Netanyahu reflected a shortsighted desire to curry favor with the factions of the far right, whose supporters, particularly those living in or linked to the settlements, are spearheading the public campaign against Rabin’s policies.

Some observers think Sharon himself is angling for the support of these groups and would consider stepping outside the Likud to form a new party based on disgruntled Likud followers and other rightist groups.

Sharon hotly denied this, recalling that it was he, in the early 1970s, who was instrumental in founding the Likud.

Netanyahu, for his part, referred this week to Sharon as “an inveterate underminer” – a phrase originally used by Rabin in 1978 to describe his longtime Labor Party rival, Shimon Peres.

In interviews, Netanyahu noted that Sharon had crossed swords with former Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

“Now it’s my turn,” Netanyahu added bitterly.

Shamir, who is sporadically active in public life, recently came to Netanyahu’s side with the withering assertion that “Sharon will never be No. 1 in the Likud.”

But Sharon’s chances are regarded differently by another important figure on the right, Tsomet leader Rafael Eitan.

Eitan, whose staunchly nationalist party won eight Knesset seats in the surprise of the 1992 election, already cast his own hat into the prime ministerial ring, announcing he will run in 1996.

This week, Eitan said Sharon was an eminently suitable candidate.

But he did not back down from pursuing his own candidacy, leading some pundits to predict that the two former generals – who together ran the controversial invasion of Lebanon in 1982 – may emerge from the current infighting on the right as a single ticket.

According to this scenario, Eitan will run for prime minister with a commitment to make Sharon his defense minister.

But one longtime Likud insider warned this week that it would be wrong to write off David Levy.

The former foreign minister, crushed by a Netanyahu-Sharon alliance in the buildup to the 1992 election, has been laying fairly low lately – making do with periodic public assaults on Netanyahu’s “autocratic style of leadership.”

But Levy is not out for the count – and he can be relied upon to return to to the ring when the opportunity presents itself.

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