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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu started off his party's campaign on Monday with a show of unity at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds in the first meeting of the Likud central committee since his election as party leader a week ago.
The central committee nearly unanimously passed Netanyahu's proposals to reserve the second slot on the Likud list for Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and to delay the elections for the Likud's Knesset list from January 3 to January 12.
Netanyahu outlined his positions on diplomatic and socioeconomic issues without getting heckled by a crowd that regularly attacked his predecessor, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"The time has come for a party to say what Israel will keep and not what we should give away," Netanyahu said. "There are three different approaches: Keeping all the land, which I think would be a mistake; withdrawing from nearly all the land, which Ehud Barak, Sharon and Amir Peretz support and I think is dangerous; and our policy, which is defensible borders for Israel."
Speaking under a banner with the slogan "the Likud is renewing itself," on a stage with the 26 remaining Likud MKs, Netanyahu said his "defensible borders" would include the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights, an undivided Jerusalem, settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria and the hilltops overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport, the Gush Dan region and Route 443.
On economic issues, Netanyahu proposed a series of measures to stimulate the economy, including cutting NIS 4 billion from the defense budget, cutting the value added tax (VAT) to 14 percent, extending train lines to the Negev and the Galilee and building homes in the two regions for recently discharged soldiers.
Netanyahu accused Sharon of harming Israel's security by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. He mocked Sharon when he began his speech by asking whether the microphone was working. He also charged Sharon with bringing "criminal elements" into the Likud.
"Only in the past few years, criminal elements have entered the party," Netanyahu said. "Their number is small, but the damage they have caused is serious. We have to show these people the way out. Their path is not with us. They can be in another party but not in ours."
Defending his decision to try to expel Likud activist Moshe Feiglin from the party, Netanyahu said - without mentioning Feiglin's name - that his proposal to bar people with a criminal record from running for Likud institutions was not intended to exclude people based on their faith or their outlook. "Those issues will be decided democratically in the ballot box," he said.
Feiglin's supporters tried unsuccessfully to sign up enough central committee members on a petition to force the vote on reserving Shalom's slot to be held by secret ballot. They were upset when Likud director-general Arik Brami brought the Shalom proposal and the election delay proposal together in one vote. They accused Netanyahu and Brami of conducting a "fictitious, corrupt vote."
Outside the hall, a man shouted at central committee members not to vote for candidates who supported disengagement. Channel 2 reported that a "hit list" was distributed at the event calling upon members not to vote for former Likud rebel MKs.
Netanyahu made a point of not saying anything in his speech about when the Likud's four ministers might quit the government. The ministers have come under fire from party activists who have accused them of harming the party by holding on to their cabinet seats.
"The Likud ministers cannot remain in the government, acting as a fig leaf for Sharon's policies as Kassams are falling," Likud MK Uzi Landau said. "The Likud ministers should demonstrate national responsibility and quit."