Cliffhanger Likud Central Committee opens Sunday

Shas warns Netanyahu not to count on its backing.

MK Binyamin Netanyahu shouldn’t count on Shas to support him in his bid to lead the country should Prime Minister Ariel Sharon leave the Likud, Shas Party leader Eli Yishai told The Jerusalem Post. “If Netanyahu is counting on me, he’s mistaken. I’m not in anyone’s pocket,” Yishai said Friday. His words ran counter to media assertions that Netanyahu has the support of 61 MKs should he need to quickly put together an alternative government, a count that included Shas. Aides to Netanyahu have said that the MK is exploring that option. In speaking with Meet the Press on Channel 2 Saturday night, Netanyahu hedged when asked if he had the backing of Shas. “If Sharon leaves the Likud and tries to steal the Likud mandates to form a left wing party, I would prevent him from doing this,” Netanyahu said. Without Shas, it would be hard for Netanyahu to drum up the support necessary to replace Sharon within the 21 days allotted to him by law while still keeping the current government intact, said a source close to Sharon. The source called the whole notion of Netanyahu having 61 MKs, a “fairy tale” but acknowledged that on the eve of the start of the fateful two-day Likud Central Committee on Sunday and Monday, in which the political future of the two bitter rivals will be determined, that the race between the men was very close. While the 3,000 Central Committee members are technically voting on a date for the party leadership primaries November as per the request of Netanyahu or April as Sharon desires -- the choice is seen as a sign of support for the candidates themselves. On Sunday, the Central Committee meeting will start around 5 p.m. in Ganei Hata’arucha in Tel Aviv. The last five speakers are likely to be MK Uzi Landau, who like Netanyahu is vying for Sharon’s job, followed by either Justice Minister Tzipi Livni or Acting Finance Minister Ehud Olmert; Netanyahu; Likud Minister Tzahi Hanegbi; and then Sharon himself at 8 p.m. Central Committee members will return on Monday to cast secret ballots from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with initial results due around midnight. The meeting opens under the shadow of Palestinian missile attacks into Sderot from Gaza over the weekend. In speaking with Channel 2, Netanyahu said it was no surprise the attacks occurred given the unilateral way Israel left the Gaza Strip this summer. “What happened is what I said would happen,” said Netanyahu. “We should respond harshly. I will support any actions of the government to stop the missiles.” He also said that Sharon’s government shouldn’t allow the Palestinians in Gaza to reopen their port or for Israel to take any more unilateral steps to relinquish territory. The moment the attacks occurred, an aide to the prime minister said Sharon stopped working on soliciting support for the Central Committee and turned his attention instead to Israel’s security. He spoke with the Defense Minister and the IDF Chief of Staff and asked for a harsh response. The aide said Sharon believes that after disengagement one cannot go soft on the issue of security. An adviser to Netanyahu said that the contest is not about a specific incident but rather about the Likud’s policies and the future of the party. Until the start of the convention, the aide said Netanyahu and his supporters would continue soliciting votes. Mid-afternoon on Sunday, Netanyahu and Landau are expected to meet with Central Committee and Knesset members who support them. In past conventions, those who opposed Sharon often drowned out his words with screams but, in this convention, according to an aide to Landau, it’s possible that those opposing him might simply walk out of the room and make a statement by their absence. Sharon’s advisers have said that the prime minister will consider a vote against him in the Central Committee as a statement that he has been thrown out of the party and that the option of forming his own party was not out of the question. Should Sharon form his own party, Netanyahu is looking at the option of gathering 61 MKs behind him and asking President Moshe Katsav to make him the prime minister -- a move that would leave the government intact until the general elections scheduled for November 2006. MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) said he believed that there was room for Shas to negotiate with Netanyahu. If Netanyahu made them the right offer, they would consider supporting him, said Ze’ev. But Yishai said it was unlikely they would do so as it might not be worth it to them to compromise with a leader who only was going to be in power for a year. “All of this was speculative until Monday’s vote,” he added. Netanyahu said of Sharon on Saturday night, “He has already left the Likud. He is putting forward a policy that is more left than [Vice-Premiere Shimon] Peres (Labor),” said Netanyahu. But Sharon’s aides and committee members who support the prime minister said his path is the path of the Likud in the year 2005. Sharon himself, in spite of Netanyahu’s assertions to the contrary, has insisted that as long as he wins the Central Committee vote, he intends to remain as the party leader and to fight for another term as prime minister.