By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed to continue efforts to split opposition leader Tzipi Livni's Kadima party on Monday after he failed to persuade seven MKs to leave the party and join his coalition.
In a stormy, three-hour Kadima faction meeting, Livni succeeded in uniting her party behind a statement rejecting Netanyahu's offer for Kadima to join his coalition without impacting its policies or its makeup. The faction unanimously endorsed a national-unity government, but only in a true partnership.
Following the meeting, Livni issued a fierce attack on the prime minister for devoting his attention to dividing Kadima instead of focusing on bringing home kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.
"Today, hope beat cynicism and truth beat dirty politics," Livni said in a press conference. "We saw a new record in cynicism from a man who is supposed to act like a prime minister but instead engaged in gutter politics in a week when the country was waiting with bated breath, looking to Jerusalem to learn the fate of their soldier."
She accused Netanyahu of trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to bully Kadima MKs, and of unjustly using the Iranian nuclear threat to justify his political maneuver.
She also lashed out at her party rival, Shaul Mofaz, for trying to use Kadima's internal problems to force her to advance the party's next leadership race.
Netanyahu responded by calling Livni a "serial unity refuser" and insisting that he was still "determined to expand the government in light of the challenges the country is facing."
In closed conversations, he said a split in Kadima was just a matter of time.
Sources close to Netanyahu said that Livni was
the last one who could preach, as she held a political parlor meeting during Operation Cast Lead, while missiles were being fired at Israeli citizens, and because she has been trying to split Labor for months. They said that in the Likud's contacts with Kadima MKs, 17 criticized her leadership.
The architect of the attempted Kadima split, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, said a seventh Kadima MK would be found soon to legally split the party.
A Kadima MK said he knew for certain that six Kadima MKs had signed a document asking the Knesset House Committee to approve a split.
Katz reportedly succeeded in persuading MKs Ronit Tirosh, Eli Aflalo, Otniel Schneller, Shai Hermesh, Arye Bibi, and Yulia Shamolov-Berkovich. The MKs Katz had hoped would leave Kadima but ultimately did not agree to were Ze'ev Boim, Ya'acov Edri and Robert Tibayev.
Tirosh said Livni had persuaded her to remain in Kadima, at least for now.
"Read my lips," she said. "I am staying in Kadima, unless the prime minister eventually makes a serious offer to join the government and we turn it down."
Livni loyalist Ronnie Bar-On bashed Schneller at the Kadima faction meeting for threatening to take 10 Kadima MKs with him to Likud if Livni rejected Netanyahu's offer.
"You're a zero," Bar-On told him. "What you said to the press you should have said here to your friends behind closed doors."
The only MK who came to Schneller's defense and condemned Bar-On's attack on him was Avi Dichter.
Mofaz slammed both Livni and Netanyahu in his speech at the faction meeting, accusing both of them of arrogance.
Netanyahu also faced criticism in his own party for the failed effort split Kadima, from MK Danny Danon, who accused Netanyahu of trying to "flood the Likud with leftists," and from Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who "expressed disgust with the way Israeli politics had deteriorated."
An official close to Rivlin said the speaker "extremely disapproves of the political phenomenon in which a party takes revenge against another party for a previous act against it."
"He believes that it is a slippery slope," said the official, "and the beginning of the end of the party system in Israel. He believes that faction discipline is important and without it legitimate political action cannot occur."
Netanyahu is expected to receive further criticism from inside his party when the Likud Central Committee meets to discuss technical, internal party matters on Tuesday.
The prime minister told the Likud faction on Monday that "there is currently no reason for Kadima to decline the offer to join a national unity government."
"I told her that if [peace talks with the Palestinians] is what interests her, there is no reason not to enter a national unity government," the prime minister summarized.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak didn't resist the opportunity to mock Kadima at Labor's faction meeting.
When asked his opinion regarding the debate taking place down the hall in Kadima, Barak replied: "wonderful," in a reference to Livni's repeated interruptions of MK Shaul Mofaz with that word as he attempted to present his diplomatic plan to the Kadima faction last month.
Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.
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