Infighting threatens post-Sharon Likud

The Likud central committee will convene on Thursday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds for the first time since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bolted the party amid bitter infighting among Sharon's potential successors. The central committee is expected to set December 19 as the date for the party leadership primary. Interim Likud chairman Tzahi Hanegbi will be the sole speaker at the meeting to prevent it from becoming a platform for the six Likud leadership candidates and some 300 candidates running for Knesset with the Likud. The six Likud leadership candidates will sign a document vowing to "run clean campaigns without attacking each other personally, so that we will be able to work together after the race is over for the Likud's success in the general election." But, if the first few days of the race are any indication, the contest will be anything but clean. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz sharply attacked former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday morning in an interview with Army Radio. "There are leaders who were raised with a golden spoon in their mouth and Bibi is one of them," Mofaz said. "I don't think he has experienced poverty in his life and therefore poverty and compassion are far from his heart and his policies. I came from a home where bread was scarce. I didn't grow up with a golden spoon in my mouth." Sources close to Mofaz said that the goal of the attack was to differentiate himself from Netanyahu and present himself to the Likud members as the main alternative to Netanyahu in the race. "He has attacked Netanyahu over the past 18 months for his economic policies that harm the poor people," a Mofaz strategist said. "He has been building himself as a social affairs-minded leader. The buzzword to win the race is social affairs and he has the poor background to justify it." Netanyahu responded in a speech to the International Economic Forum that "the populist attacks against my economic policies that saved the country are bad for the economy and the state." He said the attacks also hurt the party, because his economic policies were those of a Likud-led government. Because he is the front-runner in the race, Netanyahu will not personally criticize Mofaz or the other challengers. He instead will focus his attacks on Sharon as he did on Tuesday when he called the prime minister a dictator. He will also stress this because Mofaz and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom supported disengagement, they cannot present an alternative to Sharon's new party. A senior Likud official warned that if the candidates continued attacking each other, the party was bound to finish third in the March 28 election. "It's sad that we are killing each other when we need to be uniting around one candidate and gearing up for the race against Sharon and Labor," the official said.