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Former Likud ministers Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat, and Dan Naveh convened at Shalom's Ramat Gan home in a secret meeting on Wednesday evening to discuss strategy for overthrowing Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu vowed to remain Likud chairman despite the party's fall from 40 to just 11 Knesset seats under his leadership. But Shalom, Livnat, Naveh and other Likud MKs intend to pressure him to acknowledge his failure in the elections and quit politics.
"The nation said no to Netanyahu and not to the Likud, so he has to go," one of the participants said in the meeting. "If he doesn't leave on his own, we will have no choice but to force him out."
Shalom has been careful not to speak publicly since the election, preferring to carefully plan his next course of action. Shalom's options include convening the Likud central committee to start the arduous process of ousting Netanyahu, pressuring Netanyahu to quit at his own volition or doing nothing and waiting for the next general election.
Netanyahu's associates said that the former ministers would not succeed in ousting him. They said Netanyahu had enough support in the central committee to prevent the process from beginning and in the Likud membership to prevent it from succeeding.
Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar and outgoing MK Uzi Landau defended Netanyahu, saying that he should be given an opportunity to rehabilitate the party and that an upheaval in the Likud leadership would give the party further headaches. They blamed the party's poor showing on the Likud ministers' failure to quit the government over disengagement.
"The public punished us for not acting like a proper ruling party," Sa'ar said. "If we want the Likud to continue to exist, we have to act responsibly. It's not the time for unnecessary internal competition. It's time to take steps to regain the public's trust."
One such step that was discussed in Likud circles on Wednesday was uniting the party with the National Union and Israel Beiteinu to become the Knesset's largest faction. Such a move could not prevent Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from forming a coalition but it could help coordinate the opposition to bring down his government quicker.
Sources close to Netanyahu said he opposed the merger, but Livnat said she was concerned that Netanyahu would adopt the idea as a means of holding onto power. Shalom, Livnat and Naveh decided in their meeting to work against the merger.
"We are very concerned about talks of uniting with parties further to the right," Livnat told Israel Television's Channel 1 outside Shalom's house. "The Likud is not an extremist party. It is a ruling party. So we have to work to prevent this."