Likud ministers say no to Netanyahu’s call to quit

The four Likud ministers refused on Wednesday night to accede to party leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that they submit their letters of resignation from the government by Thursday. Netanyahu’s demand came on the eve of Likud’s primaries Thursday to select its candidates for the Knesset elections. The move to resign had been delayed until now because of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke. Ministers Silvan Shalom, Dan Naveh, Limor Livnat and Yisrael Katz were taken by surprise. Netanyahu did not discuss the decision with them, and their associates said that there had been discussion, by telephone, of possibly convening the Likud Central Committee to decide on the matter. After Netanyahu’s election as party leader, the four ministers opposed resigning on the grounds that the Likud ought to head into the elections from a leadership position. That is why Netanyahu took Wednesday: He suspects his ability to withstand them will decrease substantially after the Likud’s Knesset list is chosen Thursday, so moved to entrap them. Associates of the ministers attacked the move, saying Netanyahu acted out of self-interest because he wanted to be appointed chair of the opposition. Netanyahu associates said they believe the ministers will resign since they knew all along that the move was merely delayed. Netanyahu’s office said Kadima is taking steps that translate into beginning to divide Jerusalem, and that Likud cannot offer an alternative to the government while it is part of it and carries out its policy. Sources close to Netanyahu said Wednesday that it is obvious to everyone that the political system has retreated into campaign mode, spurred on by „impatient” Kadima people. Kadima was quick to attack Netanyahu. Senior party officials said that the fast one Netanyahu pulled on the Likud ministers showed that Netanyahu can’t handle pressure. If the ministers indeed resign, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is likely to appoint replacements, with Shimon Peres as a possible candidate for foreign minister. Likud Central Committee members will gather Thursday at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds to choose the party’s Knesset list, amid polls that give Likud 15 seats at best. The fight over a viable slot on the list will be fierce, even for incumbents, at least nine of whom are likely to find themselves pushed out of viable ranking. Wheeling and dealing continued late into Wednesday night, as candidates tried to secure the support of various groups within the Center Committee and lists of recommended candidates were circulated among party branches. MKs and ministers who moved from Likud to Kadima have also been busy, via aides and advisers, „taking care” of friends left behind. The polls will close at 10 P.M., with results due around half an hour later. In an effort to clean up the party’s image, Netanyahu has ordered that candidates will not be allowed to set up stands at the Exhibition Grounds, and will be forbidden to distribute food or play music.