Likud cast its votes as deep split in party looms

Stung by the spectacle of a sitting prime minister silenced at his own party convention, the rival camps of the Likud were in uproar Monday morning, as the powerful Central Committee began voting on an issue that could seal the fate of the embattled party. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon walked out of the Likud Central Committee meeting Sunday night when the microphone stopped working as he was ready to urge delegates to vote Monday against a proposal to move up the date of the party’s leadership primary. The vote is widely seen as a bid by party rivals Benjamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau, supported by anti-disengagement party „rebels” and settlers, to overthrow Likud Chairman Sharon. About 25 percent of the some 3,000 eligible voters casted ballots by 3 P.M. The polls, which opened at 10 A.M., will close 12 hours later. Results are expected at midnight. On the first day of party deliberations Sunday, Sharon’s departure effectively broke up the meeting, which degenerated into angry recriminations between his supporters and opponents, each accusing the other of having sabotaged the sound system. Sharon returned to the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds to cast his ballot shortly before 2 P.M. on Monday. Alluding to the microphone flap in quips to reporters, he asked those standing near him „Can you hear me, are you sure you can hear me?” He had intended to speak the night before about „the conduct of the Likud as a ruling party,” but was unable, Sharon continued, addingn that he hoped „the members of the Central Committee will come to vote against the proposal, which will seriously harm the Likud.” Even before the microphone imbroglio, the Sunday meeting was marked by unprecedented incivility: as Sharon was about to start speaking, a group of his opponents walked out of the hall, an act that officials from Sharon’s bureau likened to Muslim leaders’ walkout from the UN General Assembly when Sharon got up to speak there earlier this month. Likud MK Michael Eitan said Monday the Likud leadership had allowed „political terrorism, sabotage, the closing-down of microphones.” Citing incidents in the past where Likud Central Committee members had come to blows and hurled chairs at one another, Eitan said the party leaders had failed to address the phenomenon. „Democratic discussions can take place without screaming and shrieking and going crazy and lowering ourselves to the lowest level possible, at times engaging in slugging of one sort or another,” he told Israel Radio. „The whole world looks upon and sees a prime minister kept … from taking part in a discussion.” Netanyahu: We’re not Meretz Sharon had planned to say that advancing the primary would be „suicide that would destroy the Likud and bring it to one place only – the opposition.” Netanyahu, for his part, told central committee members Sunday night that whoever wants to leave the party should do so now. That was a clear reference to Sharon, whose aides have insinuated in recent weeks that Sharon would leave the Likud and form a new party should the motion to advance the primary pass. Speaking over the heckling, Netanyahu also accused Sharon of having moved the party to the far left of the political spectrum through his disengagement plan. „We’re not Meretz, we’re not left of Meretz, we’re the Likud,” he said. After initial attempts to solve the microphone problem, including activation of the back-up system, failed, Likud Director General Arik Barami charged that Sharon’s speech had been sabotaged, saying that the prime minister’s opponents had poured a bucket of water on the microphone’s electrical connections. Police later responded that an informal examination had produced no evidence of sabotage: no cables had been disconnected, nor was there any sign that water had been spilled on them. However, they added, they were waiting for a formal complaint before opening an official investigation, which would involve expert electricians who might uncover a less obvious form of sabotage/ „Are we a democratic movement or the movement of one person who ignores all our decisions?” Netanyahu asked, referring to Sharon’s decision to proceed with the disengagement even after the plan was decisively defeated in a referendum of party members. „The Likud does not belong to me and it does not belong to you, Arik. We belong to the Likud.” Landau, who led the Likud’s anti-disengagement camp, rejected the argument that advancing the primary would destroy the party, arguing that the Likud could not lose more ground than it already has under Sharon. „Whoever says the Likud is in power is deceiving himself,” he said. „The Likud is not in power, because all its basic positions have been violated.” In a sign of Sharon’s eroding support, Education Minister Limor Livnat, who had supported the prime minister until now, spoke in favor of advancing the primary – though in an interview with Israel Radio earlier in the day she insisted that „early primaries are a technical matter, not an ousting.” She also used her central committee speech to urge Sharon to promote settlement construction. „The permit is in your hand,” Livnat said, in remarks directed at Sharon. „Tell them to begin construction.” Livnat added that her decision to support early primaries followed attempts to reach a compromise acceptable to both Netanyahu and Sharon. Ministers Silvan Shalom, Meir Sheetrit and Tzipi Livni, in contrast, spoke against moving up the primary, warning that doing so would damage the Likud. Both Shalom and Sheetrit warned that advancing the primary would lead to early elections, which in turn could bring the left into power. „I have never before seen a party prepared to give up on its ruling power with such joy and jump into the abyss,” Sheetrit said. „I’m telling you: Be careful. Those who support advancing the primary are going to destroy the Likud… The left could rise to power and give up the entire Land of Israel.” BPI-info