The Likud rebels defiantly vowed to reject any offers to serve as ministers or deputy ministers in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet, in a meeting at the Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters on Sunday.
But Sharon's associates scoffed at their decision, saying that Sharon never intended to appoint any of them anyway. Sharon's advisers were also satisfied that only seven of the rebel MKs attended the meeting.
MKs Michael Ratzon, Yuli Edelstein, David Levy, Nomi Blumenthal, Ayoub Kara and Gilad Erdan attended, in addition to Natan Sharansky, who is not an MK. Haim Katz, Leah Ness, Moshe Kahlon and Yehiel Hazan were conspicuous in their absence.
"It was a generous gesture by the rebels, or what's left of them anyway," a Sharon adviser said mockingly. "The only title that they deserve is loyal Likud MK."
Sharon's associates said that if Sharon decides to appoint a third new Likud minister in addition to Ze'ev Boim and Roni Bar-On, it would be Deputy Internal Security Minister Ya'acov Edri. They said that the vacancies created by Boim leaving his job as deputy defense minister, Bar-On as Knesset House Committee chairman, and possibly Edri, could be filled by appointing one of the MKs who boycotted Sunday's meeting.
The loyalty of the rebels will be tested on Tuesday when Sharon hosts his holiday toast in Ramat Gan, and next week at a Likud faction meeting in Sharon's succa at his Jerusalem residence. Sharon has invited the entire Likud faction to both events, and most of the rebels have not decided yet whether to attend.
The next test will take place when Sharon delivers a policy address to the Knesset when it returns to session on October 31. The MKs will be asked to vote on whether they agree with his policy statement. They will then vote on whether to approve the 2006 state budget, the nominations of Boim and Bar-On and the permanent appointment of acting finance minister Ehud Olmert.
The rebels decided to continue meeting as a group before every crucial piece of legislation. But it was already clear on Sunday night that nearly all would vote against Boim and Bar-On, while most will support Olmert and the budget.
They also resolved to make it clear that all rumors of their imminent demise as a group were greatly exaggerated. They made the decision to shun appointments because they agreed that accepting a position in Sharon's cabinet would legitimize disengagement.
"We saved Sharon the headaches over who he should appoint as a minister but if he thinks he can go now and carry out more unilateral withdrawals and expect us to be disciplined, he's got another thing coming," Edelstein said.
"As long as I am around, there will be ideology in the Likud, and we will protect it until our way wins," Kara added. "Sharon wants us to break up and we won't give him the satisfaction. Being the nation's moral compass comes with obligations."