Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu urged a crowd of party members to support his proposal on Tuesday, when the 3,000-member Likud Central committee will convene at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds to vote on whether their right to select the party's MKs should be given to the 130,000 Likud members.
In a resounding show of support for Netanyahu, Likud MKs rallied around his proposal to give all party members the ability to directly vote for their legislators.
"It will help the public think about what kind of policy is needed to lead the nation," said Netanyahu, who was greeted by applause and chants of "Bibi, King of Israel."
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All of the party's MKs except former foreign minister Silvan Shalom signed a letter to the central committee members urging them to support the proposal, because it could help improve the party's image ahead of the March 28 election.
Shalom said he would vote in favor even though he disagreed with the way Netanyahu advanced the proposal during the election campaign.
In Ashdod on Monday night, Shalom said he feared that if such decisions were left up to party members, in the end it would be the media that decided the party's fate. Still he urged committee members to support the move lest a negative vote be interpreted as a lack of support for Netanyahu. The feelings against the central committee are "unjust," Shalom said. But when it comes to changing the method of voting for MKs, "the train has left the station. When it's Netanyahu's will, we have to support him," said Shalom.
MK Limor Livnat gave an impassioned speech in support of the proposal, which she said she had favored for many years. Livnat said she believed it would give voters who had turned to Kadima a reason to return to the Likud, empowered by the belief that they could impact the party.
"They did not want to vote for Labor and they thought Kadima was a second Likud," she said. But now, "they see that Kadima is like a hot-air balloon behind which there is nothing but Left, Left, Left."
Members of Moshe Feiglin's Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) movement said they would oppose the proposal because Netanyahu violated a party bylaw to wait a minimum two weeks before convening the committee.
"We are in favor of leadership, but we are against trampling the party's laws," Feiglin said. "We are worried that Netanyahu has started bypassing party rules the way [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon did. The proposal will only strengthen the chance of sending a Manhigut Yehudit candidate to the Knesset but we are opposing it, because we are worried that Netanyahu has let the power go to his head."
Netanyahu spent the day meeting with more than 100 Likud mayors, deputy mayors and activists to persuade them to advance the proposal.
Speaking in Ashdod, Netanyahu promised to stand firm against Hamas. "We know how to make Hamas buckle rather then buckling before it," Netanyahu said."No one will defend us if we do not defend ourselves," he said.
He also promised to continue his work in turning Israel into a world-class economy. "A strong economy is a strong society," Netanyahu said.
Shalom said Netanyahu "is the only one who can stand against Hamas." He accused Kadima of undoing all the hard work that he as foreign minister had done to galvanize the world against Hamas by garnering support for it to be on the terror list.
Shalom said that when Sharon asked him to join Kadima, he had refused, forgoing the promise of a governmental position in favor of ideology because he believed that the Likud was the best party to secure the nation's future. "This is the only party that can lead the country," he said.