Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that he was unimpressed with fervent calls for party unity from his political opponents in Wednesday's Likud faction meeting in the Knesset.
Likud MKs who had been rebelling against Sharon for more than two years took turns giving speeches about the need for unity in the party to defeat newly elected Labor chairman Amir Peretz. But Sharon told his associates that he expected the show of unity to end immediately after the election.
"Let's not lie to ourselves," Sharon said. "No one in the faction has changed their mind about anything because of this meeting."
Sharon's associates shrugged off the calls for harmony within the party, saying that they "hadn't seen such an atmosphere of hypocrisy in the faction in a while" and that the Likud was still "far away from reconciliation."
Sharon loyalist MK Roni Bar-On left the meeting early, saying that the unity speeches by Likud rebels "made me need a barf bag."
In a typical statement from the meeting, Likud rebel MK Michael Ratzon said, "There is a time for everything - a time to argue and a time to unite. This is a time to emphasize what we have in common instead of our differences and move forward together."
Many Likud MKs left the meeting upset that Sharon did not use the occasion to announce whether he intended to remain in the Likud. Sharon's associates said that he would not make a decision until next week, when his advisers received the results of polls and market research focus groups.
Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra and Knesset Law Committee chairman Michael Eitan told Sharon in the meeting that it was unacceptable that he had not yet announced his decision.
Sharon's leadership challenger, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said without mentioning Sharon that "whoever loses the race will have to accept the democratic decision."
A Dialogue poll in Ha'aretz found that Sharon had widened his lead over Netanyahu from 14 to 19 percent since September. The poll found that Likud rebel leader Uzi Landau's support had also fallen. Channel 10 broadcast a Gal Hadash poll that found that Sharon would beat Netanyahu by more than 30 percent. Netanyahu's own polls showed a gap between him and Sharon in the low teens.
Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that he was against a proposal in the Likud central committee to reserve the second slot on the Likud list for Netanyahu in return for him quitting the race. "We have to stop this crybaby approach of saving Bibi," he said. "Bibi is a big boy and he can run by himself."
Landau said in the meeting that the Likud should unite around its principles and ideology instead of around the prime minister.
He said that there should be primaries and that he would be a candidate, but that "no matter who wins, I will stand behind the victor."
Ezra retorted bluntly, "You know you're going to lose, right, so why are you still running?"
At the end of the meeting, the faction unanimously passed a statement saying that "the faction sees the breakup of the national-unity government as an irresponsible move by Labor and its chairman. The Likud will unite against the extremist policies of Amir Peretz that endanger Israel and the economy. We will win the election and continue to lead the country."
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