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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed Monday to thwart efforts by his political opponents to draft the 61 MKs needed to delay the March 28 general election and form a new coalition that could last until November.
Sharon hinted to Kadima officials that he blamed his arch-rival, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the maneuver. He said the people behind the move were "the same people who tried to advance the Likud primary," referring to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu denied involvement in the initiative, even though Shinui head Yosef Lapid revealed that Netanyahu called him personally two weeks ago and asked him to support it.
The main MKs openly advancing the initiative have been four vocal Netanyahu loyalists in the Likud: Reuven Rivlin, Michael Ratzon, Yuval Steinitz and Ayoub Kara.
"We cannot let this story rest," Sharon told the Kadima faction at the Knesset. "We need to say aggressively, seriously and even cynically that this initiative is problematic."
Sharon's associates accused Netanyahu of trying to delay the election because of the Likud's poor showing in the polls.
"This is another stinking maneuver from Netanyahu and company, but not a surprising one," a Sharon associate said.
A source close to Netanyahu responded by calling the accusations from Sharon and his associates "nothing but spin from a party built on nothing but spin." The source said the press had been swallowing "lies from Sharon's people."
Netanyahu met with Kara at the Druse MK's home in Daliat al-Carmel on Sunday and discussed the chances of the maneuver succeeding. Kara said he got the impression that Netanyahu would openly advance the initiative if he won Monday's Likud primary.
Rivlin said the fact that Sharon and Kadima had taken the initiative seriously had convinced him that it might have a chance of succeeding. Rivlin spoke personally about the initiative with Labor chairman Amir Peretz and with retiring Labor MK Avraham Shochat. Rivlin wanted Shochat to serve as caretaker prime minister until November because he was seen as lacking political motives.
The coalition Rivlin hopes Shochat will form would include Likud, Labor, Shinui and the National Religious Party, four parties currently faring poorly in the polls. The latest Dahaf Institute poll, published on Monday in Yediot Aharonot, predicted that Kadima would win 41 mandates, Labor 21, Likud 11 and Shinui only four. Kadima gained two mandates and Labor and Likud each lost two since a poll published on Friday.
Sharon's associates called such a prospective coalition "the deal of the doomed." But Shinui's Lapid and Labor's Peretz ruled out the initiative on Monday in their faction meetings at the Knesset.
"The Labor Party will go forth and change the political spectrum in this country through the election process," said Peretz. "I have not agreed to meet with anyone or speak with anyone about this initiative."
Peretz said Sharon's use of corrupt and unethical ploys in forming the Kadima party were to blame.
"The prime minister has brought politics to such a low state that people are beginning to believe that anything goes," he said. "But the Labor Party must take it upon itself to save Israeli democracy, especially when the situation has gotten so low."
MKs currently have an opportunity to form an alternative government before President Moshe Katsav's order to disperse the Knesset takes effect December 29. Katsav filed his order on December 8, giving MKs 21 days to form a coalition. A Netanyahu victory in the December 19 primary would give him 10 days to experiment with coalition-building.
If at least 61 MKs agree to back a candidate for prime minister, a new government would take office until November 2006, canceling the planned March 28 election.
Shochat said he was looking forward to retirement, even if it meant giving up a chance of becoming prime minister.
"I think the whole story is bullshit," he said. "It's not proper, it's not reasonable and I don't want to be a part of such a lame trick."