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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Likud central committee voluntarily decided to forego its most powerful weapon on Wednesday, voting by a hefty majority to give up its right to select the party's Knesset candidates.
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu's proposal returned the power to select the Likud's MKs to the party membership for the first time since 1997, when Netanyahu himself engineered the move to empower the central committee.
Many of the 3,050 central committee members had used their power to threaten the future of MKs and demand political patronage positions, earning the body a bad reputation.
The fate of the proposal had already been decided earlier Wednesday when an internal party court rejected a petition to hold the vote by secret ballot.
Many opponents of the move responded by boycotting the event. They vowed to topple Netanyahu and restore the power to the central committee immediately after the March 28 election.
Standing on a stage bearing the slogan, "A strong Likud, a secure Israel," Netanyahu vowed that passing the proposal would bring about a turning point that could allow the Likud to return its former supporters to the party and win the election.
"This proposal is good for the Likud and for the country," Netanyahu said. "We have to do everything possible to ensure that the public will trust us, and we have to prove that we are willing to put the good of the nation and the party ahead of everything, including personal considerations."
Netanyahu told the crowd that the public expected the party to pass the proposal, but "our enemies expect us to not pass it," referring to central committee members who shifted allegiance to Kadima but remained in the party to harm it from inside. The Likud will try to take advantage of the momentum from the vote to begin a new membership drive and return former members to the party.
"We will leave here with our heads held high... and we will go from house to house to seek the public's support," he said. "I ask Likudniks who left to come home. The Likud has returned to be the largest, cleanest party that you used to vote for and you used to love."
Some 30 Likud candidates sat on stage and backed up Netanyahu. Recently convicted MK Nomi Blumenthal's absence was noticeable because there were only three female candidates on stage. One by one, the Likud MKs spoke in favor of the proposal, but Silvan Shalom included veiled criticism of Netanyahu in his endorsement.
"I call upon you to back the party chairman to give the party a chance to strengthen itself ahead of the election," he said. "But at the same time, anyone who thinks that the central committee selecting MKs is the only problem in the Likud is wrong. The problems are a lot more complex than that, and we have a lot more work to do to reconnect to the nation."
Opponents of the proposal accused Netanyahu of using political tricks to pass the proposal without a secret-ballot vote. They said that if Netanyahu's goal was to convince the public that the Likud was clean, the move backfired.
"Bibi hijacked the vote because he was afraid of the result, which would have been the opposite," said Avraham Avidan, who heads the Likud branch in Yavne. "This is a very bad day for the Likud, which is fighting itself instead of the corrupt [Ehud] Olmert. I feel badly, but at least I haven't been shot in the head."
Tel Aviv attorney Emanuel Weiser, who filed the petition requesting a secret-ballot vote, said that the central committee was sacrificing the only tool it could use to maintain the Likud's traditional right-of-center ideology.
"We might get more mandates if the proposal passes, but we have already seen what happens when there are more mandates but no ideology," Weiser said, referring to the Likud under Ariel Sharon.
Shevah Shtern, who heads the council of Likud branches in Judea and Samaria, said he voted in favor of the proposal because he believed it would strengthen the Right.
"In the election in the central committee for the Likud list, rightist MKs were pushed down the list," Shtern said. "This will help more of the Right get in. We will use the voter registration drive to make this a real right-wing party."
A Kadima strategist said in response that "the few people who still believe Netanyahu will accept this charade."
Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu met with a group of Sharon supporters in the Likud whom he had threatened to expel and told them that they could remain in the party if they backed the proposal.