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SHARON CLOSING GAP WITH NETANYAHU

Two Israeli Newspaper Polls Indicate Sharon Is Catching Up To Netanyahu In Likud Race

Most Likudniks Favor Sharon's Position Opposing Netanyahu's Demand For Early Primaries In November

Netanyahu Now Expected To Veer From Far Right To Center To Gain Popular Support

'Maariv' headline

Just one week after challenging Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for party leadership, former Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is forced to change his campaign strategy.

In the Likud race, frontrunner Bibi Netanyahu is losing ground to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The latest polls indicate that Likudniks are now asking 'what's the rush?' when it comes to Netanyahu's drive to hold early party primaries in November, oust Sharon and go to an early election. A poll in Haaretz newspaper shows that in the Likud leadership race Netanyahu's lead has dropped; 44% back Netanyahu to 38% for Sharon. However, 52% of Likudniks support Sharon's position that the party primaries be held next April as scheduled and not in November as Netanyahu wants. The 3,500 members of the Likud's central committee members are to vote on the issue at the party convention on September 26th; the next general election is due in November 2006. Netanyahu's game plan has been to win an early primary date at the convention, defeat Sharon and then lead the Likud into an early election. Fearing the clash between Netanyahu and Sharon could trigger a breakup of the Likud; a compromise proposal to hold the primaries in February has been raised. However, Sharon has rejected it saying: 'I am not going to compromise on this or that date when the goal is to topple me'. In light of the latest polls, Netanyahu might now consider primaries in February but this would be viewed as a sign of weakness after launching his gung-ho campaign. The former Finance Minister cashed in the fury in the Likud over the recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. However, the latest polls indicate that Likudniks are having second thoughts about ousting Sharon and following Netanyahu into an early election the Likud might lose. With Sharon as Likud leader, the polls show the Likud would easily defeat Labor next November. So as tempers cool, Likudniks may not go for 'cutting off your nose to spite your face'.Sharon of course is hammering home this message to the party. The PM met with seventy Likud municipal leaders who are not eager to put their jobs on the line in an early ballot. This applies also to Likud cabinet ministers and those Knesset members who also have a lot to lose.

Odd Man Out: Netanyahu can now be expected to turn up the pressure on a third Likud candidate MK Uzi Landau to drop out of the race. Landau, who polls less than 20% of Likud support, has vowed to oust Sharon because of the evacuation and his supporters could be counted upon to switch to Netanyahu. But Landau represents the far right in the Likud and has pledged that he's in the race for keeps.

Ariel Sharon - Bibi Netanyahu

Back To The Drawing Board: Netanyahu's first objective is to translate the Likud's anger with the PM into votes at the Likud convention for an early primary in order to oust Sharon. He launched his campaign with a bitter personal attack charging Sharon was unworthy to serve as prime minister. By also declaring that he would build housing units between Maale Adumin and nearby Jerusalem, Netanyahu may have endeared himself with the right wing but alienated the center of Israel's political spectrum. This could be reflected in future polls of the Israeli public at large. And if Likudniks see a stark reality of most Israeli voters favoring a combination of a new breakaway Sharon lead party with Labor in a new coalition, this will work to Netanyahu's disadvantage.This is why Netanyahu may very likely veer to the center after launching a hard line almost far right approach and also why Sharon will act as if it's business as usual in the PM's office. After the disengagement, no one views Sharon as a political cream puff. He declares time and again that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas must dismantle the terror organizations or there will be no jump-starting the roadmap negotiations for a Palestinian state.

Footnote: IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has warned that the military will clobber the Palestinians if the terrorists respond to Israel's evacuation with a new round of violence. It is highly unlikely that Israel's top soldier would have issued such a warning unless those were his orders from the incumbent prime minister. On the other hand, Sharon is also picking up a big disengagement dividend in the international arena. Not only Pakistan, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is expected to visit Israel this fall and Jordan's king Abdullah may come before then. Other Muslim states may also agree to make public their private contacts with the Jewish state after the recent withdrawal. World leaders are also lining up to meet with Sharon at the upcoming session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Obviously, all this international attention is not lost on Israeli voters back home.

David Essing

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