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GIL HOFFMAN \
(photo credit:Ariel Jerozolimski)
Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu kicked off his campaign for the Likud leadership
on Tuesday by fiercely attacking Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Netanyahu gave an interview to every television and radio station in Israel. He used the public exposure to paint Sharon as a leftist following his decision to leave the Likud and form his own party.
"Sharon is a dictator," Netanyahu told Army Radio. "It doesn't matter that the dictator smiles or that he has a sense of humor if he leads to a dictatorship, to corruption, and endangers the security of the state. Sharon's policies are anti-peace and security and they are not the Likud. Sharon is to the left of Peretz if not Meretz."
Netanyahu accused Sharon of "forming a party of puppets," because he cannot handle democracy or dissent. He charged that the prime minister had been planning his departure from the Likud for months and tricked Likud members by hiding his intentions. He said that Sharon had essentially left the Likud three years ago and, now that he was gone, the party could return to its roots.
"People want the Likud to return to the values it had before Sharon used the party and threw it to the garbage," Netanyahu said. "Sharon has been removing the content from the Likud over the past three years and making it into a second Labor. Now he is abandoning the Likud to connect to the first Labor. No one knows the difference between his party and Labor."
Netanyahu's message to Likud voters choosing between voting for Sharon or the Likud was that "a vote for Sharon is a vote for the Left." He predicted that if Sharon is reelected prime minister he will withdraw unilaterally from vast amounts of settlements.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom formally joined the Likud leadership race on Tuesday and spoke much more diplomatically than Netanyahu. Speaking in a press conference at Tel Aviv's Beit Sokolow, Shalom said that Sharon made a mistake by leaving the Likud, but that the party was bigger than any one man.
Shalom said that he worked hard to convince Sharon to stay in the Likud but did not succeed. He called upon the one million Likud voters to remain in the party.
"I can stop the drift of voters to Amir Peretz for socio-economic reasons and to Sharon's new party for diplomatic reasons," Shalom said. "This is a war for our home and only I can keep the voters at home in a large Likud. Only with me will the nation stay with the Likud and the Likud with the nation."
Shalom said that if he is elected the Likud's candidate for prime minister he will provide the party with the moderate voice necessary to defeat Sharon and Labor in the March 28 election. He said that if he becomes prime minister he would try to form a national-unity government with Labor and Sharon's party.
Asked whether he would allow Sharon's party to merge back into the Likud if he wins the general election, Shalom said that "the Likud would be ready to accept anyone who believes in its path. If in the future the prime minister believes in the Likud's path he would be welcome like anyone else, but I don't see it happening."
Shalom criticized Netanyahu's economic policies, calling them "a cruel economic path" and saying he would "protect the weaker sectors" if he were to lead the country.
Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert joined the Bibi bashing. He told Army Radio that Netanyahu lost his mind when he saw a poll in Tuesday's Yediot Aharonot that predicted that he would lead the Likud to only 12 Knesset seats.
"For Bibi, the polls matter more than reality," Olmert said. "Bibi is a man who can't handle pressure. The smallest pressure and he goes wild. He opened the papers this morning and lost it."
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