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The Likud should hold immediate primaries to elect a new leader to replace chairman Binyamin Netanyahu due to his failure in the March 28 election, former foreign minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday.
Shalom, who ran unsuccessfully against Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in December, had kept silent since the election while his associates repeatedly attacked his rival. Now, in a series of interviews, Shalom has accused Netanyahu of making a myriad of mistakes that led to the party's downfall.
"I said all along that in the Likud leadership race the choice was between a small Likud headed by Netanyahu and a large Likud under me," Shalom said. "I thought the Likud had no chance under him and, unfortunately, I was right. We failed because the party went too far to the extreme right, the socioeconomic plan was anti-social and people didn't want the man who headed the Likud."
Shalom said that after Netanyahu led the Likud from 40 seats to only 12 he had expected him to resign the chairmanship, as Netanyahu had done when he won only 19 seats in 1999. He said that "the least Netanyahu could do" if he would not quit was initiate a primary as soon as possible to put his leadership to the test.
Blaming Netanyahu for the rise of Kadima, Shalom said he was also responsible for the formation of other political parties of ex-Likudniks, including Gesher, the Center Party, the National Union and Israel Beiteinu. He said Netanyahu made mistakes when he resigned from the Finance Ministry and when he removed the party from the government.
Netanyahu responded directly to Shalom in a stormy Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on Thursday, saying that "the only thing that disgusts the public about the Likud is our internal conflicts." Sources close to Netanyahu accused Shalom of "scheming and undermining the Likud for personal reasons."
In the faction meeting, the dozen remaining Likud MKs debated whether they should negotiate to join Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition. Most of the MKs were against it, but they ultimately accepted Shalom's recommendation to begin negotiations even if the chances of joining the government were minimal.
"If we are invited to negotiations, it would be wrong to say no," Shalom said. "It would be for the good of nation if we were in the government."
MK Michael Eitan said he was in favor of joining the government because "there is no real difference between us and Kadima other than [Olmert's West Bank] convergence plan." He suggested it might be better to fight the plan from inside the coalition.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin warned that joining the government would destroy the Likud. He said the party needed to serve the country in the opposition to try to win back voters to its ideological path.
MK Moshe Kahlon said the faction was united in its refusal to accept the convergence plan, but that if Olmert were interested in talking with the Likud about entry into the coalition the party would speak with him. MK Natan Sharansky said the party could not accept a policy of one-sided concessions.
MK Limor Livnat said the party at this time needs to focus on reinventing itself. "The convergence plan is very dangerous," she said. "The Likud has to stay in the opposition and to fight against these principles."
Gideon Sa'ar said he did not see how the party could sit in the government, given that Olmert had spoken about wanting to execute his program soon.
"We have to be in the opposition," he said. "Certainly, if Olmert turned to the party, its members would respond politely. Since our opinion is clear - we are against unilateral withdrawals and those forming the government support such moves - I do not see how we can sit together in the same coalition."
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.