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NETANYAHU MOVES TO OUST SHARON AS PRIME MINISTER

Binyamin Netanyahu: 'Sharon Has Trampled On Likud Principles & Turned Israel Into Second Most Corrupt State in the West'

Ariel Sharon: 'Netanyahu Lacks Sound Judgment & Iron Nerves Required of Israeli prime minister. He panics under pressure'

The Likud Dilemma - Punish Sharon and Risk Next Election Or Forgive Sharon And Guarantee Election Victory

Binyamin Netanyahu

Former Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu has announced his candidacy for Likud leader and party candidate for prime minister. The Likud central committee is to meet on September 26th to vote on a date for primaries that are expected around the end of November. At present, polls indicate that Netanyahu leads Sharon and a far right candidate MK Uzi Landau who resigned from the cabinet in protest over the disengagement.

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Israel's ruling Likud party is now embroiled in a 'civil war' - the outcome will determine who will be the country's next prime minister. Former Finance Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu has officially announced his intention to run against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Recent polls indicate that Netanyahu, who quit the cabinet in protest over Israel's controversial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, leads Sharon by 14% in the Likud's central committee. At a Tel Aviv news conference, Netanyahu accused Sharon of 'trampling on Likud principles' by implementing the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. Rather than strengthening Israel's security, the retreat was a 'tail wind for Palestinian terrorism'. Israel would reap the whirlwind but when elected, Netanyahu would remedy this as he had in the past. During the news conference, there was a brief uproar when a Sharon supporter apparently infiltrated Netanyahu backers and heckled Netanyahu. He was quickly expelled. Later, Netanyahu charged that Sharon would stop at no provocation. Netanyahu also played the corruption card. In his view, Sharon was to blame for the World Bank listing Israel as the second most corrupt state in the West. When asked if the Prime Minister may have initiated the disengagement plan in order to deflect the pressure of police inquiries into financial corruption, Netanyahu did not want to speculate about Sharon's motivation. What was important was the result and it was bad. The former finance minister was confident he could beat Sharon describing his chances as 'very, very good'. He would then go on to win an early election and form a 'real Likud government' as he put it saying Sharon had gone farther to the left than Labor's Shimon Peres or even Yossi Beilin of Meretz.

If elected: There would be more unilateral concessions to the Palestinians; they would have to reciprocate. Netanyahu noted that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was already prodding Israel to give up more territory in Judea and Samaria (West Bank). Netanyahu would also carry out a national referendum before any future Israeli territorial concession.In making his election declaration, Netanyahu did not mention the Roadmap peace process with the Palestinians that Israel has accepted and backed by the U.S. and the European Union, Russia and the U.N. When later asked whether he accepted it, Netanyahu said he would demand the implementation of the fourteen points by the Israeli government at his insistence.Did he accept the Roadmap's goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel? Netanyahu replied that Sharon had already created a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip.

The die has been cast or, has it? Most Likudniks are fuming over what they view as an historic sellout of Likud ideology. They see Sharon as having hijacked the party's 'land of Israel' ideology and forging an unholy alliance with left wing Labor to implement the unilateral retreat. In addition, Sharon did so for no good reason. On the contrary, he has weakened Israel strategically and shown the Palestinians that 'terrorism pays' thereby encouraging Intifada#3 in the future.

Ariel Sharon

Sharon Pre-empts: Less than twenty-four hours before Netanyahu threw his hat into the ring, Sharon gave a rare one hour interview to Channel 10 TV. The PM pummeled Netanyahu saying the former finance minister was undoubtedly talented, but he was certainly not up to the job of prime minister. That was Sharon's opening jab; then came a one-two combination for a knockout. Sharon repeated several times 'Netanyahu has neither the sound judgment nor iron nerves required by a prime minister of Israel. He panics under pressure'. Moreover, Netanyahu was even dangerous for Israel Sharon added: 'As a member in Netanyahu's cabinet, I saw how he sent a businessman (American Ron Lauder) to Damascus to negotiate the return of the Golan Heights'. And Sharon cracked that no one had any idea at the time of what Netanyahu was up to. At his news conference, Netanyahu said 'he would not stoop to Sharon's level of personal attacks. The Likud Match-up: How come Sharon was able to ram his disengagement plan down the throats of a rebellious Likud? First of all, Sharon towered over all other potential candidates when it came to overall Israeli public opinion. It boiled down to his force of personality and the unvarnished truth is that Netanyahu nor other cabinet cabinets ministers such as Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat, Yisrael Katz, Danny Naveh and Zachi Hanegbi ready to risk their political careers by standing up to Sharon early on and resigning from the cabinet. (Although eight Knesset members appeared with Netanyahu at the news conference, no cabinet ministers did. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, who also opposed the withdrawal, sat among the audience.) . Internationally known Natan Sharansky did resign in protest over the withdrawal and then Sharon barred him from becoming chairman of the Jewish Agency.

Personality & Platform: It was his personality that enabled Sharon to move off the Likud 'Land of Israel' platform that opposes giving up settlements. The fact is that few, if any, Israelis who voted for Sharon in the previous election, had the foggiest idea he would unilaterally evacuate the Gaza strip and four West Bank settlements. Did Sharon pull a fast one? Yes, although most of the media and academia are ready to forgive him and of course the Prime Minister has gained the backing of the center and left wing on the disengagement issue. Even if Sharon's switch may have been democratic many Israelis feel: 'It may have been kosher but it stinks!'In addition to attacking Sharon's disengagement policy, Netanyahu has also gone for the jugular by assaulting Sharon's personality: 'That man is simply unworthy to be prime minister of Israel'. He alleges that Sharon's corruption and warns of it trickling down into a society of 'baksheesh' (under the table payoffs). Today Netanyahu did not refer to Sharon's son, MK Omri who has already been indicted. In his Channel 10 interview, Sharon senior, categorically denied knowing anything about illegal campaign funding.

Time Is Of The Essence: If the polls show Netanyahu would trounce Sharon if the Likud primaries were held today, will this hold up over the longer run? Sharon is the first Likud leader to trespass the party line on settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. But another first is the move to oust a serving prime minister who the polls show would win the next general election garnering far more Knesset mandates than Netanyahu. In fact, the Likud runs the risk of losing the next election. What will the 150,000 party members think when push comes to shove in another three months when passions cool and they vote in Likud primaries? The Likud is on the horns of a dilemma: Punish Sharon and possibly lose the next election to Labor or forgive Sharon and win the next election. In his interview, the PM stressed that U.S. President Bush will support Israel's control of settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria and oppose the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. The latest polls showed Netanyahu leading Sharon by fourteen points in the Likud Central committee. If this applies to the rank and file, only seven percent or so would have to switch back to Sharon for the incumbent to win. The polls also show a Sharon-lead Likud would clobber a Peres-lead Labor in the next election. However, a Netanyahu lead Likud would end up in a neck and neck race with Labor. In other words, Labor could rise to power. Will the Likud risk political suicide? Public opinion polls will be more important than ever before the Likud primaries expected in another three months. The Likud jury is out and will be for some time. And don't forget that Sharon is still in the driver's seat; he might have some surprises up his sleeve, that could win back support in the Likud that he has lost over the unilateral withdrawal.

David Essing

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