Mofaz: Netanyahu could end up destroying Likud

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Thursday sharply criticized MK Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the former finance minister’s plan to move up the date of the Likud primaries could destroy the party. “The economic policies of the last few years, brought forth by Benjamin Netanyahu, succeeded in damaging the Likud,” Mofaz told Likud activists. “The poverty, the rift in the party and the blows to the poorer classes – these struck every corner and thousands of voters of the Likud.” If the date of the primaries is moved up – as Netanyahu wants and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opposes – the Likud would be destroyed, said Mofaz. Political pundits have been speculating that if the date is moved up, Sharon could start his own party. “You would be remembered in the annals of the Likud as the person who crushed it,” Mofaz told Netanyahu. He warned that the dissolution of the Likud could lead to a victory for Labor. Also on Thursday, chairman of the Likud Central Committee MK Tzahi Hanegbi met with representatives of the three candidates for party chairmanship, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau, in order to finalize the procedures for the Monday’s vote holding early party primaries. Sources in the camp opposed to Sharon fear voting irregularities and have requested to place monitors in all voting stations. Furthermore, the camps disagree on the order of speeches and the speakers. Although neither Netanyahu nor Sharon have plans to hold assemblies Thursday, both camps have announced intentions to focus on telephone campaigns to sway members of the central committee who have not yet claimed sides. Both camps understand that the outcome of the current struggle within the central committee will heavily depend on the floating votes. A Dialog poll conducted for Haaretz indicated that MK Benjamin Netanyahu had a slight lead over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the debate over the Likud primaries date. The move for earlier primaries could lead to Sharon’s departure from the Likud. Some 40.3 percent of those surveyed supported Sharon’s position to hold the primaries in April, their originally scheduled date. According to the poll, it is mostly the 18-24 and 65 plus age groups that support advancing the primaries. Earlier on Thursday, Netanyahu said that a possible bolt from Likud by Ariel Sharon was proof that the prime minister could not care less about the party, and accused him of turning Likud into a left-wing party with the implentation of the disengagement from Gaza. Netanyahu’s criticism came a day after Sharon angrily rejected an ultimatum demanding his unconditional allegiance to Likud. The ultimatum came from Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and Likud whip MK Gideon Sa’ar, who said that if Sharon did not declare that he would remain in Likud under any circumstances, they would vote in favor of bringing forward the party primaries. Sharon termed the ultimatum “chutzpah,” and described a Likud Central Committee meeting Sunday as “an attempted ouster.” Speaking on Israel Radio, Netanyahu said Sharon accepted Likud decisions as long as he was getting his way, but was unwilling to accept refusal from the Central Committee. According to Netanyahu, on his way to implement the disengagement Sharon “dismissed an army chief, head of Shin Bet, ministers, anyone who disagreed.” But “worst of all (Sharon) left an entire political movement bereft of its values and turned us into Meretz,” he said. Netanyahu was reiterating his speech from the night before in which he said “the Likud must decide whether we are the Likud or whether we are Meretz.” ‘Work to ensure I am not toppled’ In his meeting with Likud activists on Wednesday Sharon showed he was confident of his chances to remain Likud head for an additional term, dismissing the ultimatum posed by Katz and Sa’ar. “I have a better proposal,” Sharon told activists at his residence in Jerusalem. “Don’t expel, don’t oust, but don’t worry – we will win on Sunday, we will win the elections, and we will keep the Likud in power for many more years to come,” he said. Sharon reiterated his intentions to remain Likud chairman and lead the party in the next elections. “If you are toppled, will you continue to lead [the party]?” he was asked by one of the activists present. “Work to ensure that I am not toppled,” the prime minister replied. Prior to Sharon’s meeting with supporters last night, his advisor Eyal Arad told the media that if the prime minister was defeated in the central committee, he would have to make some difficult decisions. “If the Likud members decide to oust him and kick him out of his home, he will have to weigh his steps and make decisions about his future, and this will have grave consequences. He does not want to resign,” Arad said. Arad and other advisors of Sharon refrained from explicitly stating that a defeat for the prime minister in the central committee would mean an immediate resignation from the party – but the message and threat were clear. According to assessments, despite the pressure he is under, Sharon is remaining vague and is using the threat of resignation as a weapon in his leadership struggle with Netanyahu. Sa’ar and Katz’s move puts pressure on ministers Silvan Shalom and Dan Naveh, who have yet to make a clear statement on the issue. Netanyahu said on Wednesday night in response to Sharon’s comments on the ultimatum. “All of this has lead to terror, and when you flee, the terror chases after you; all these policies are an absolute deviation from Likud policy. Have we become the executors for the Peres-Beilin government?” BPI-info