Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
took a big risk when he allowed Minister-without-Portfolio Tzahi Hanegbi
to join his new Kadima party
on Wednesday, the same day the police announced that they will press charges against Hanegbi
for illegal political appointments.
Click here to read archived interview with Hanegbi.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni
and other officials close to Sharon warned him against letting Hanegbi join the party out of fear that he would turn off potential voters and paint Kadima as a party tainted by corruption. But Sharon insisted that Hanegbi would bring more mandates from the Likud
than might be lost to Labor by bringing him in.
"We might lose some votes in the short term due to the unfortunate timing of the police's decision, but we will gain in the long term because Tzahi is seen as the ultimate Likudnik and it is important that a centrist party like Kadima has a high-profile figure who opposed disengagement," a source close to Sharon said.
Sharon's associates said that Hanegbi's announcement that he was leaving the Likud for Kadima was a serious blow to the party, which lost its interim chairman just two weeks after he replaced Sharon. They said that, since the announcement, several key Likud activists and MKs had called asking to join Kadima.
Hanegbi had intended to announce his decision earlier in the week but delayed it due to the terrorist attack in Netanya
. In a press conference at Tel Aviv's
Beit Sokolov, Hanegbi said Sharon asked him to join Kadima two weeks ago and he had been deliberating since.
"My heart said to stay in the Likud but my mind said to join Sharon's historic effort and help him win another term," Hanegbi said. "I couldn't support a Likud candidate who would run against Sharon, the man I trust and whose path I consider the best alternative. It tears my heart to leave the Likud but I can't lie to myself."
Hanegbi said that his diplomatic views had shifted over time and he now believes that diplomatic compromises have to made to guarantee a Jewish and democratic state. The son of former rightist MK Geula Cohen, he admitted that he had come a long way since the days when he led the protests against Israel's
withdrawal from Sinai.
"I couldn't stay the energetic young man at the top of the monument in Yamit for the rest of my life," he said. "Now I believe that if Sharon doesn't [draw Israel's borders] no one will be able to do it for 30 years."
Hanegbi quit his post as interim Likud chairman and resigned from the Knesset
. He said he resigned because, since he was elected by the Likud, he could not justify taking the party's mandate to Kadima. Cosmetics queen Pnina Rosenblum is set to replace Hanegbi in the Knesset and a group of Likud officials led by Health Minister Dan Naveh will take over the interim leadership of the party until the December 19 primary.
Despite his deliberations over whether to join Kadima, Hanegbi presided over last Thursday's Likud central committee meeting and made an impassioned call for the Likud to win the election. He said he saw no conflict of interest because he did not make any decisions as interim chairman.
Hanegbi denied that his problems with the law had any connection to his decision to join Kadima. He expressed confidence that he would be cleared of the charges and said he trusted the public to accept that he was innocent until proven guilty.
Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu
and other top Likud officials hinted that Hanegbi's decision was tied to the police investigation.
"Tzahi made the move because he is in a grave personal crisis," Netanyahu said in a press conference with MK Uzi Landau
. "It's wrong to judge people when they are down. It has no political significance." Landau said that Hanegbi had sold out his ideology and that Israeli politics had reached a new low. "Tzahi should be ashamed of himself," he said.
On a visit to Tel Aviv's Carmel market, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom
accused the Likud rebels of breaking up the Likud and forcing out Hanegbi. He appealed to his fellow Likudniks
to do everything possible to prevent more people from leaving the party.
Former prime minister Shimon Peres
, who joined Kadima last week, declined to comment about being in the same party as Hanegbi. But his former campaign manager, Yoram
Marziano, said Sharon misled Peres.
"Sharon should be ashamed of himself for tricking Peres," Marziano said. "He asked Peres to join a centrist party, but with every passing day it's becoming clearer to Peres that he is in a boat together with rightists and the most corrupt people in politics."
Vilna'i, who was appointed by Amir Peretz
to head Labor's anticorruption campaign, noted, "The timing could not be more symbolic and more miserable than a public figure joining a party the same day that an indictment is issued against him." Vilna'i said that Kadima had become a refuge for criminals and suggested that Kadima open up its headquarters inside a police station to save money.
Outside Hanegbi's press conference, Labor activists led by Knesset candidate Guy Spigelman demonstrated with pictures of the prime minister, Omri Sharon
and Hanegbi under the slogan "Kadima is on the way to the police station."