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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Finance Minister Ehud Olmert declared Tuesday that Likud mayors across the country would be supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new party.
"Most mayors in the Likud identify with me and with Arik, and we will promote this with full force," Olmert, himself once a Likud mayor of Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post.
Olmert said he would be joining Sharon on a series of campaign gatherings around the country. He indicated that mayors would be a key source of local support for bolstering their efforts in these stops.
Already two heads of local authorities - Yossi Nishri of Kiryat Ono and Eli Levy of the Lehavim regional council - have announced that they are recruiting mayors to join Sharon. Neither would disclose specific mayors they've enlisted or their total numbers, but Nishri estimated he has the support of at least 20 and Levy said he has 35 people on board so far and expects the amount to grow to over 50. The two have been in contact, but their groups are separate.
They also both said they anticipate that mayors from Labor and other parties will join them.
Levy said he expects to meet with Sharon to discuss the matter on Sunday.
According to Levy, most mayors tend to be more moderate and "pragmatic" in their concerns than many Likud members. That's one reason so many feel inclined to support Sharon, and not stay with a party that is "going more and more right, and might be a party better for [Avigdor] Lieberman," formerly of the National Union.
Levy acknowledged that it poses a risk for mayors to leave their parties, but said that, "a person who's looking out for himself will stay with the [Likud] party. A person who's looking out for the good of the country will support Sharon."
He added that some mayors are "fed up" with the party structure anyway. "We want to do something new."
Nishri, for his part, emphasized the support mayors feel for Sharon and their faith in the job he's doing as prime minister.
Likud Deputy Director-General Assaf Yitzhaki, however, disputed the assertion that Israel's Likud mayors will bolt en masse to join Sharon's party.
"No one will take the chance [of leaving]," he said, explaining that "no one knows if this new party will be around in three years."
A mayor, Yitzhaki said, is especially dependent on having a stable party. "He has invested his career in his town, to build the place." That future - both for himself and for the city - can best be built when one is part of a strong party, he continued.
Besides, he added, the Likud "is like home" to these mayors. "There's no one like mama. There's only one."
He pointed to two mayors, Miriam Fierberg of Netanya and Haim Aviran of Hadera, as two Likud stalwarts sure to stay in the party.
Fierberg couldn't be reached for comment.
Aviran said he "still hasn't decided" what he'll do, his feelings toward Likud without the premier seemed tepid at best. "I support Sharon," Aviran said. "He's the most appropriate for the job of prime minister."