Former Labor chairman Shimon Peres's endorsement of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is just what the doctor ordered to help save an ailing Likud party, the leaders of the Likud decided in a meeting at the Knesset on Wednesday.
"Vote Sharon, get Peres," will be the party's new slogan in an NIS 1 million advertising campaign designed to stop the flow of Likud voters to Sharon's new Kadima party.
Interim Likud Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi convened the party's leadership for an emergency meeting after a Dahaf Institute poll published on Wednesday in Yediot Aharonot indicated that the party had dropped to an embarrassingly low ten mandates - less than Kadima, Labor and even Shas. The leaders decided that the solution to the Likud's problems was to stop infighting and use the party's ammunition on Sharon and his new Kadima party.
"There are 118 days until the next election, during which time there will undoubtedly be 118 polls, and in each and every one of them, we will get stronger," Hanegbi told reporters after the meeting. "We will have to fight the external battle as if there was no internal battle."
Hanegbi acknowledged that persuading the Likud's leadership hopefuls to stop attacking each other would be a challenge. During the closed-door meeting, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly lashed out at Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom for harming the party with his verbal attacks on him in an election rally on Tuesday night.
The Likud leaders decided to form a team of party spokesmen who are not candidates composed of Hanegbi, Health Minister Dan Naveh, Education Minister Limor Livnat and coalition chairman Gideon Sa'ar. The team immediately got to work attacking Kadima and its acquisitions from Labor: former ministers Haim Ramon, Dalia Itzik and Peres.
"Whoever votes for Kadima gets a package of Peres, Itzik and Ramon," the spokesmen said. "This is the turning point when Likudniks will start coming home. No one is more identified with the Left than Peres. His joining Kadima is proof that the party has become just another party of the Left that will lead us to Oslo."
Netanyahu told supporters in an election rally in Givatayim that "it is now clearer than ever that Kadima is an imitation Labor party that is trying to hide and put on a costume."
A Kadima spokesman responded that attacking Sharon via Peres was "the oldest routine in Bibi's book."
When asked by Channel 2 on Wednesday night to comment about the Dahaf Institute poll that showed the Likud falling to ten seats, Netanyahu replied that "a poll broadcast on another channel said the Likud would get nearly double." Netanyahu was referring to a poll conducted by the Mutagim company that was broadcast Tuesday on Channel 1's "Politika" show, which predicted that the Likud would receive 18 seats and Netanyahu would trounce all competitors for the Likud leadership. But Channel 1 apologized on Wednesday for portraying the poll as objective and neglecting to mention that it was funded by Netanyahu.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who was a guest on the show, complained about the poll in a strongly-worded letter to Israel Broadcasting Authority Chairman Yair Aloni and the minister in charge of the IBA, Tzipi Livni. Aloni decided to suspend Channel 1 political correspondent Boaz Shapira pending an investigation.
"The results of this vindictive poll have already entered the public consciousness so the damage will be difficult to fix," Mofaz wrote. "Politicians in 2005 shouldn't be able to threaten the press and force them to violate all norms of journalistic ethics or to cynically use the media to mislead the public to unfairly influence public opinion."
In a further setback for the Likud, the party's veteran legal adviser, Eitan Haberman, announced on Wednesday that he would take on the same role with Kadima.
The Likud immediately fired Haberman, an expert on election law who had been a member of the party for 30 years and its legal adviser for 20.
Without Haberman, there is no legal authority in the Likud, leaving the December 19 leadership race open to legal challenges. Haberman's departure is also expected to pave the way for the party's central committee to pass motions limiting the rights of MKs to defy the committee, which Haberman had prevented in the past.