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In the dusty lobby of Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv hangs a plaque dedicated to Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist Movement, Likud's forerunner.
Taken from the polymath Jabotinsky's novel Samson, it exhorts, "Tell them three things in my nameâ€¦ gather iron, anoint a king and learn to laugh."
Like the biblical Samson, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brought the (Likud) house down when he announced Monday that he would ditch Likud to form a new party.
While Likud "gathered iron" this week by mobilizing activists, it was far from anointing anyone to replace Sharon.
And certainly no one was laughing this week in Likud's HQ, a forbidding 14-story building nicknamed "Ze'ev's Fortress" after Jabotinsky.
In fact, Raheli City, 45, one of Sharon's most zealous activists until last week, wept. Flying into a rage at the mere mention of the rotund former Likud chairman, City screamed, "He stabbed me right in the heart," thumping her sternum for emphasis. "He abandoned me, he left his home."
But those in the Fortress can't quite get rid of him. Portraits of the prime minister still hang in most of the Fortress's offices, although campaign paraphernalia, such as Sharon bags and T-shirts, have been stuffed in a security officer's room.
On Wednesday, City hung about with a group of other activists and members of the mighty Likud central committee on the Fortress's 11th floor. They are among dozens of cadres from 73 Likud branch offices across the country that snap into action during election season. With Likud primaries slated for December 19, the Activist Recruiting Office, where City and her friends huddle, is starting to hum. The office is cramped, its walls stained with fingerprints.
City said she owed much to the Sharon family. "Omri," she said, referring to the prime minister's son, "set me up, got me political appointments, took care of me." Sharon family connections earned City a job at the Postal Service and at the National Rabbinical Council.
City's verve earned her the moniker "the life of the party" at the Fortress. She had been Sharon's biggest supporter, canvassing neighborhoods and making hundreds of phone calls, all on a volunteer basis, she added.
"Now [the family] betrayed me!" shrieked the divorcee and mother of one, flinging her mane of dyed hair to and fro.
The other men in the recruiting office, perhaps more quietly grappling with the loss of the leader, nodded in sympathy and returned to their doodling.
Here, when people talk about "Likud blood," they mean it almost literally. City joined Likud's forerunner, Herut, when she was 13. Avram Kamsorla, a gaunt 65-year-old as soft-spoken as City is raucous, has hung around the Fortress since it "was a single-story hut" back in 1957, when he joined Herut.
Technically, Likud didn't lose a single one of its 130,000 members when Sharon bolted, said the head of Likud's organizational branch, deputy director-general Assaf Yitzhaki. People were still signing up. Computer printouts and telephone numbers, the weapons of the election war, were stacked in neat piles on his desk. With the phone numbers and Likud's true right-wing ideology, he said, the party would prevail.
Prof. Asher Cohen, an expert on political parties at Bar-Ilan University, wasn't so sure. "Never in the history of modern government has a sitting prime minister quit his party," he observed. "That doesn't bode so well for Likud." Worse yet, said Cohen, while Labor's Amir Peretz and Sharon are off to a galloping start ahead of the March 28 polls, Likud won't have a leader until after its December 19 primaries.
For her part, City didn't intend to waste time or energy mourning Sharon. She announced she's supporting Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who threw his hat in the ring Tuesday evening.
Others, like Eli Ezra, a Likud central committee veteran with a frizz of black hair and a garrulous laugh, can't help but look back. Nursing a Styrofoam cup of coffee at the Activist Recruiting Office, Ezra explained that he couldn't part from "the general."
Ezra is the type of politico who will continue talking until interrupted. A right-winger who believes in Sharon's path, he explained at some length that he could not leave the Likud. But in national elections, he said, he would have to vote for Sharon.
"We are all brothers," said Ezra, "so perhaps Likud and Sharon could form a unity government someday."
Across the room, City mercilessly berated him for "following that man after he betrayed you. You call yourself Likud!"
Ezra's response was to look down at his rumpled suit jacket.
No one in the room acknowledged, as Sharon claims, that Likud's central committee drove him out. At Ze'ev's Fortress there was no reckoning Wednesday, only anger. The prospects of Likud coming in third, after Sharon's new party and Labor, in the March 28 elections are too grim for most to accept.
Likud's only advantage, noted Cohen, is "returning to its traditional role as an underdog. How did Likud get all the Mizrahim [Jews from Arab countries]?" he asked, then answered, "By playing the underdog card, by getting them roiled up and angry." Nevertheless, "it is a fine mess Likud's in," said Cohen.
Perhaps only the Revisionist Jabotinsky might have been able to laugh at this one.
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