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LIKUD BELIEVES SHARON IS BEATABLE

Likudniks: 'We Have Nowhere To Go But Up'

'Former Elections Resulted In Wide Polls Drawing Close By Election-Day'

Likud Race Turns Into Free For All

The Likud election for a new party leader is off and running. The Likud central committee is expected to select December 19th for the primaries to elect the man they want to replace Ariel Sharon who now heads the new Kadima party. The internal Likud campaign will obviously dominate until the new leader emerges to face Sharon and newly elected Labor leader Amir Peretz.

'Polls are like perfume, good for smelling but never drinking'. That comment on election polls by former Labor Party leader Shimon Peres is what is sustaining the Likud party after all the recent polls showed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new Kadima party would trounce the Likud by 2-1 and win the upcoming election on March 28th. Peres knows what he is talking about; several times the polls heralded his election triumph only he lost on election-day. But whoever wins the Likud candidacy faces an uphill struggle, even if Sharon is now cashing in on the hoopla over his dramatic split from what has been the ruling party.Likud Campaign: The party is very vulnerable on the economic belt-tightening conducted by former Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Many traditional low-income voters in development towns, Likud strongholds, are furious. They charge that Netanyahu has put them in the poor house and even if there is truth that the former Finance Minister's drastic welfare cuts saved the economy, he will have a tough time in selling this to these Likud voters. This week, former Likunik Ehud Olmert and even Likud candidate Silvan Shalom were heckled in Sderot at a public gathering. Shalom had to be rescued by none other than Labor leader Amir Peretz who intervened telling the audience that Shalom was their guest and had to be allowed to speak. Even if Sderot is the hometown of Peretz, it must send sound bells through the Likud party in general and the other candidates in particular. For if the Likud loses the developments towns it can really kiss good-bye to the election.

How to cope? Silvan Shalom, who served as Finance Minister before Netanyahu took over, contends that he actually started the needed economic reforms but Netanyahu went way too far and was guilty of overkill. Shalom, has kicked off his campaign claiming that only he can beat Sharon and Peretz. However, although the Foreign Minister did oppose Sharon's unilateral withdrawal, he slowly caved in and even negotiated Egypt's role with President Hosni Mubarak. Shalom's strong card is his popularity in the Likud central committee where he has built a strong power base. In addition, Shalom who was born in Tunisia can claim he is the Likud's 'Sepharadi answer' to the Likud's Amir Peretz.Shaul Mofaz: The ethnic card is also being played by the Defense Minister whose family came to Israel from Iran. Mofaz, like Shalom, portrays himself as the self-made man who rose from his modest surroundings to become IDF Chief of Staff and now Defense Minister. Mofaz takes a pot-shot at Netanyahu: 'Bibi was spoiled by growing up in Rechavia' and hurting the poor. (Rechavia is a well-off neighborhood in Jerusalem and code word for privileged Israeli families). The fact is although Mofaz has been speaking lately of the need for a fair-shake for Israel's poor, the funding could come only from cuts in defense spending. But the Defense Minister has fought tooth and nail any attempt by the treasury to prune the defense budget.

Therefore, although the Defense Minister's new appeals to help out the poor ring hollow, Mofaz can claim a share of the credit for containing Palestinian terrorism. This is his strongest suit in promoting himself against Ariel Sharon, 'Mr. Security'. On the down side, Mofaz is not even a Knesset member; he retired too late from the IDF to run on the Likud ticket in the previous election. Therefore, Mofaz lacks strong support inside the party's powerful central committee. Moreover, Mofaz is the only Likud candidate who enthusiastically supported Sharon's Gaza disengagement. How he can now explain this to the Likud party is going to be a tough row to hoe. In any case, the fact that some fifty senior IDF reserve officers, back Mofaz will give him a boost in the internal campaign.As for the Likud rivalry to champion the rights of the poor, Labor's former Haim Ramon now in Kadima exclaims: 'I have never seen so many Robin Hoods in the Likud; Suddenly, they all want to take from the rich and give to the poor although they did the opposite when they were in power.'

Uzi Landau: Considered to be the most ideological Land of Israel candidate, Landau was the only one to quit Sharon's cabinet. Landau argues that if the other candidates had followed his example it would have been possible to block the evacuation from Gaza and four West Bank settlements. And he accuses Netanyahu, Shalom, Mofaz and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz of being more interested in keeping their cabinet jobs than in the national interest. Landau contends he is the only one the Likud can trust to keep his word. He pledges to adopt the policies of the Likud's venerated leader Menachem Begin which he interrupts as taking a no-nonsense approach to security while looking out for the poor. On security, Landau has called for Israel to launch raids against Syria for instigating Hezbollah attacks on Israel. Although considered to be a politician with high integrity, it is doubtful that Landau can match the charisma of Bibi Netanyahu in the Likud race for party leader.

Yisrael Katz: The Agriculture Minister is perhaps the only Likud candidate who can literally match Sharon pound for pound. But other than that it is hard to see how, the hefty figure in the party and its administration, can wind up as Likud leader. He has no foreign affairs or defense experience whatever and has served only as a junior minister in the cabinet. In addition, Katz is in dire need of a public speaking course to get his message across. He has also been lambasted by the state comptroller for 'cronyism' in handing out jobs in his ministry. His candidacy appears to be no more than a self-promoting campaign to maintain his status among the party bigwigs.

Bibi Netanyahu: Were it not for his controversial slashing of welfare funding, the charismatic Netanyahu would probably be a shoe-in to be new leader of the Likud party. But although given credit for saving the economy by many objective experts, Netanyahu is now 'carrying the can' for the resentment it has aroused among many traditional Likud voters. Netanyahu contends that if he had not carried out his reforms on child allowances, unemployment payments and income tax, the state would have gone broke and there would be no money to pay any welfare at all. Moreover, the economy is purring along, unemployment is down and the stock market is way up. This is not lost on may middle and upper class Israelis who fear they will have to foot the bill if new Labor party leader Amir Peretz pushes back the Netanyahu reforms. When it comes to foreign policy, Netanyahu charges that Sharon's unilateral 'retreat' from Gaza and four West Bank settlements is a sign of things to come. He warns that Sharon is now an outright left-winger. If Sharon wins the election, he will team up with Labor to form a juggernaut which will withdraw to the old lines of 1967. When queried about his vote for the Roadmap that calls for a Palestinian state, Netanyahu replies that at his insistence, the government added on 14 conditions that will guarantee Israel's security and Palestinian mutuality. This Likud candidate declares that he would have rejected the pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to accept the recent deal for greater Palestinian mobility between the Gaza Strip and West Bank. When pushed if this might have caused a crisis with Washington, Netanyahu retorts that he would have persuaded the Americans. In the past, Netanyahu declared outright that he opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state because it would pose a grave threat to Israel's existence. Summing up, Netanyahu can mount a strong security platform inside the Likud. But what will happen when the former Finance Minister tries to explain his economic policy in the development towns? In the internal Likud race, there is a danger that the various candidates will not only be hammering Sharon and Peretz but also bad-mouthing each other causing irreparable damage to the victor's chances. Cabinet Minister Danny Naveh has drafted a code of ethics for all the Likud candidates; whether it will be obeyed is questionable.

Back At The Ranch: Sharon shows every indication that he took the right decision last weekend when he retired to his Negev ranch to consider bolting the Likud. The polls are pulling for him at present and so is most of the Israeli media. Case in point: how come at his news conference that was televised nationally on prime time, not one of the country's top political correspondents asked the Prime Minister about corruption and the campaign. Sharon's son, Knesset Member Omri Sharon has just pleaded guilty to campaign funding fraud. Omri, who ran his father's campaign, admitted he had knowingly violated the campaign-funding cap saying it was woefully out of date and made it impossible to win an election. MK Omri Sharon could face prison time when the judge hands down her sentence. The Prime Minister has said he knew absolutely nothing about campaign funding. But is it conceivable that not one of the senior political reporters would refrain from asking the Prime Minister at least one question about the scandal?The Prime Minister himself is still under investigation in a separate corruption case and the Chief of Police has announced that all inquiries of politicians will continue during the campaign. Last time around, the Attorney General suspended the investigations on the ground they could inappropriately affect the election result.Case #2: At his news conference, Ariel Sharon fielded a question about his age saying although he was pushing 78 this gave him a lot of experience in handling the state's affairs. Moreover, he felt great and could work round the clock if need be. Although this apparently is the case, and there have been no signs that it is not, should this be sufficient for a national leader? Is there not a need for Sharon to undergo a medical check-up and the results revealed to the Israeli public? It could actually be to Sharon's advantage. Some voters are asking what if I vote for Sharon now, what happens if he is suddenly disabled who will become prime minister?

MK Haim Ramon

Labor: For the newly elected party leader Amir Peretz, he must have relished having to bail out Likud rival Silvan Shalom the other night. Peretz is now riding the crest of a popularity wave that has surprised his own Labor party. His drive and energy have galvanized the rank and file. Labor believes it has a winner or at least someone who can take on Sharon and Netanyahu. Peretz has both personality and, if he continues to move closer to the center on the Palestinians, he could have a strong platform. His Achilles heel is his total lack of experience in foreign affairs and defense. This strong suit of Sharon is the weak card of Peretz. Again, Haim Ramon rammed home this point saying: 'For an inexperienced Amir Peretz to run Israel's security and foreign affairs would be like the driver of a Mini-Minor car suddenly taking the wheel of a five-ton semi-trailer truck.'

David Essing

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