Likud Central Committee to vote on early primaries in September

By Mazal Mualem, Haaretz Correspondent The Likud Central Committee will vote on September 26 on a proposal to advance the party’s leadership primaries, thereby effectively beginning the process of ousting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the party’s head. The planned vote, made possible after the party’s court approved it on Monday, represents the first time that any party has tried to oust a serving prime minister as its chairman. It also represents a significant defeat for Sharon, who tried hard to prevent the central committee from convening for this purpose, as early primaries will force him to make decisions about his political future long before he had planned to do so. Should the committee, as currently seems likely, adopt the proposal submitted by his opponents, the primaries will take place in late November, within 60 days of the committee’s vote. Thus Sharon will have to decide by then whether to run against Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently leading in polls of party members, or quit the Likud and start a new party. Monday’s decision is also liable to cause the Knesset to dissolve shortly after its winter session begins in late October, as it will encourage Labor to quit the coalition: Early Likud primaries probably signals early elections, for which Labor must also start preparing, and it would prefer to do so from outside the government. MK Amir Peretz, one of the five contenders for Labor’s leadership, responded to the Likud court’s decision by urging his party to schedule its primaries in October. Sharon’s supporters responded to the decision by accusing Netanyahu and other Sharon opponents of wanting to oust the prime minister even at the price of sending the party into the opposition. They added that Sharon has not yet made any decisions about his political future. However, Sharon himself said in a Channel 10 interview that he would definitely run in the primaries, but would not agree to be Netanyahu’s number two if he lost. First, however, Sharon plans to fight the decision to advance the contest, his associates said. Among other things, his supporters are considering appealing the party court’s decision to the regular courts, charging that the former had no authority to approve the vote. According to the Likud’s constitution, they argued, primaries can be scheduled only after general elections have been called – and since new elections have not yet been called, the central committee has no authority to advance the primaries. Sharon’s son, MK Omri Sharon, also urged a gathering of Likud activists on Monday night to work against the proposal in the central committee, insisting that a majority could be found to vote against it. But most of Sharon’s camp was gloomy over the prospects of defeating the proposal as of Monday night. The Likud court issued its ruling in response to a petition by MKs Michael Ratzon and Ayoub Kara, leading members of the anti-Sharon camp. The two asked the court to order the central committee to convene immediately, as they had gathered the necessary number of signatures from central committee members. Sharon’s supporters had charged that some of the signatures were forged or obtained by fraud, but Ratzon and Kara countered this claim by submitting affidavits from the committee members in question. Sharon’s supporters then withdrew their accusations of fraud, after which it was clear the court would order the committee to convene. The court initially tried to broker an agreement between the two MKs and Sharon’s supporters regarding the timing of the meeting, but eventually set the date for the two-day session itself: September 25 and 26, immediately after Sharon returns from a planned visit to the United States. BPI-info