JERUSALEM, Sept. 19 (JTA) — After weeks of bitter sparring, what could be the decisive first round of the big fight between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud Party and the country is set to take place. If pollsters are to be believed, Sharon will struggle to hold onto power in the party in next week’s key showdown. The images of settlers being evacuated from their homes in Gaza and the northern West Bank did not play well in the Likud. And though the prime minister has been fighting back, he still trails Netanyahu, who resigned last month as Sharon’s finance minister, in the Likud’s Central Committee, where the clash will take place. Sharon’s fate — and the future shape of Israeli politics — could be decided on a seemingly minor procedural issue. On Sept. 26, the 3,000 members of the Central Committee will determine whether to hold a party leadership primary in November or, as scheduled, next April. Sharon’s main rivals for the top spot, Netanyahu and the leader of the hawkish “Likud rebels,” Uzi Landau, both want the earlier date, hoping to exploit the post-Gaza backlash in the Likud against Sharon, which is reflected in a slew of recent opinion polls on the leadership issue. Sharon wants more time to consolidate his support, and is presenting a vote for an early primary as an attempt to “expel” a serving prime minister, a year and a quarter before the end of his term. Both sides see the Central Committee ballot as a vote of confidence in the party leader. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, one of Sharon’s closest political allies, describes the impending vote as “the most important by a party-political body in Israel in a decade.” The outcome could determine who the next prime minister will be, whether Likud remains the party of power or splits in two, whether a totally new Israeli political map emerges and whether there is a follow-up to the Gaza withdrawal. Latest polls show the Netanyahu-Landau axis leading by between 2 percent to 6 percent. According to Yediot Achronot, 47 percent of the Central Committee is for early primaries and 45 percent is against; Ma’ariv puts it at 48 percent to 42 percent. Sharon’s Sept. 15 speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in which he indicated readiness for further concessions, did not help his cause in the Likud. “The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them and have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to liberty and to a sovereign national existence in a state of their own,” he declared. Some pundits argued that the speech showed that Sharon has made up his mind to leave the Likud. “This is not the way people in the Likud talk,” political analyst Aluf Benn wrote in Ha’aretz. “This way leads toward the center, toward a public that wants peace and quiet and is willing to give up more territory.” Yediot’s Sever Plotzker, in a piece headlined “Divorce from the Likud,” wrote that “Sharon’s balanced, moving and excellent speech in Hebrew was aimed exclusively at center-left voters. There was not a single word calculated to please his traditional constituency: the members of the Likud Central Committee and Likud Party members.” Sharon, however, says he is determined to stay and win in the Likud. On the plane back from New York, the prime minister declared that he had founded the Likud and wouldn’t leave it to found another party. Sharon knows that that’s what many of his potential supporters in the Central Committee want to hear. But he also knows that the veiled threat to leave the party if he loses is his strongest weapon: Many Central Committee members may support him simply to prevent a split in the party, which could end up with Likud losing power in the next national elections. So Sharon’s camp is deliberately putting out an ambivalent message: Sharon says he won’t leave, while close aides say he will if he loses. Ma’ariv columnist Ben Caspit summed up the situation: “Sharon,” he wrote, “already has one leg outside the Likud, but the other leg is still in and kicking.” Netanyahu’s tack has been to depict Sharon as a man who has abandoned Likud principles and is therefore no longer fit to lead the party. In a joint letter to each of the 3,000 Central Committee members, Netanyahu and Landau describe Sharon as “a subcontractor for the policies of the left,” and say that if he’s going to leave the party, it’s better that he do so sooner rather than later. The greater the lag between the time Sharon founds a new party and the next elections, the more the new party will lose its luster, they argue. Insiders say about 900 of the committee members will vote against Sharon on any issue, and that another 900 or so will support him. The battle is over the remaining 1,200. Yitzhak Regev, a leading Sharon activist and influential member of the Central Committee, says turnout will be key. “If there is a high turnout, as I am sure there will be, Sharon will not only beat Netanyahu, he will destroy him,” Regev told JTA. “The media have placed the issue at the top of the national agenda. Everybody understands its importance, and they will all turn out for the vote.” But it’s more complicated than that for Sharon. One of his chief concerns is that even if he wins in the Central Committee and goes on to win the party primary and the next general election as Likud leader, he is likely to have an even more hawkish and oppositional Likud faction than the one that has constantly tried to tie his hands in the present Knesset. He knows that could make his job as prime minister impossible — and he also knows polls indicate he would win the premiership as leader of a centrist party, with or without an electoral alliance with left-leaning Labor or centrist Shinui. These two factors could well lead him to break away from Likud at a later date, even if he wins the Central Committee vote. If Sharon loses, there’s no question: Pundits unanimous predict that he’ll argue that the Likud has changed, that it’s no longer the same party he founded and that, since it clearly doesn’t want him, he will leave to head a new party against Netanyahu’s more hawkish Likud. Either way, the Central Committee vote could be a catalyst for major changes in Israeli politics, which could have a strong effect on the big picture in the Middle East.
Sharon faces key test