Sharon wins Likud vote on early party primaries

The Likud Central Committee on Monday evening voted against holding early party primaries, marking an important victory for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Shortly after midnight, Likud Central Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi announced that 1329 members supported the early vote, while 1433 opposed such a move. With a 91 percent voting turnout, 2,762 Central Committee members out of the listed 3,050 heeded Sharon’s call by coming to cast their ballot. The results came against the backdrop of ministers Limor Livnat, Danny Naveh and Yisrael Katz making a last-minute declaration of support for early primaries. MK Ruhama Avraham reported that in a conversation with the prime minister following the announcement, Sharon expressed his delight with the results. The proposal to move up the date of the party leadership race, promoted by MKs Netanyahu and Uzi Landau, was widely seen as a bid to overthrow Sharon, their rival for the Likud chairmanship. Netanyahu conceded defeat in Monday’s Likud Party ballot, saying that Sharon cannot ignore the strong opposition against him within the party. He said he was still committed to running in party primaries which will be held at their original February date. „We lost by a very few votes. There is a very large camp that went against the flow, against the wind, against the pressure, against the leadership and against the temptations,” he said. Mutual accusations The polls opened at 10 A.M. at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, where the central committee members met the night before to debate the primaries date. During the tense pollign day,both the Sharon and Netanyahu-Landau camps accused each other of election fraud Monday. Members of the Netanyahu-Landau camp filed a complaint against two Sharon supporters, accusing them of attempting to vote twice. The chairman of the Likud Voting Committee, former judge Zvi Cohen, expelled two central committee members who pretended to be monitoring the voting and managed to enter the ballots in the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds. The two, Yitzhak Vanunu from Tirat Hacarmel and Ya’akov Fadida from Tiberias, were caught after a Landau adviser noticed that they did not appear on the monitor list. The adviser said the two were members of Sharon’s camp after he saw them putting up stickers against early primaries. At the same time, Sharon’s advisor Erez Halfon said five forged ballots had been found in one voting station. Halfon said that members of Sharon’s camp filed a complaint with the voting committee after discovering that an unknown person allegedly voted in the name of a committee member who opposed early primaries. The voting committee ordered the ballot box opened, and the count revealed that 135 ballots were inside, while 130 voters were listed. As Sharon cast his ballot Monday afternoon, he urged committe members to vote against advancing the primaries date. „I hope the central committee members will come to vote against the proposal, which will seriously damage the Likud,” Sharon told reporters at the polls. He also referred to the speech that went undelivered at Sunday night’s central committee debate on moving up the primaries. Sharon walked out of the meeting when the microphone stopped working, leaving the rival Likud camps in an uproar Monday, stung by the spectacle of a sitting prime minister silenced at his own party convention. 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 exhibition grounds to cast his ballot shortly before 2 P.M. 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 said he had intended to speak the night before about „the conduct of the Likud as a ruling party,” but was unable to do so. 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. BPI-info