Low turnout mars Sharon-less Likud

Candidates agree to campaign without mudslinging; primaries set for Dec. 19.

tzahi hanegbi 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
tzahi hanegbi 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The first Likud central committee meeting without Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was intended to be a showcase of party unity in the post-Sharon era, but instead it will be remembered for its low turnout. When the event was supposed to start at 5 p.m., the room was nearly empty. It started an hour late and finished shortly thereafter. Organizers said after the event that 911 central committee members attended the event, though many of them stayed outside the auditorium handing out campaign flyers. One of the reasons for the low turnout is that there were no important votes or speeches from candidates at the event. The committee members unanimously passed a proposal to hold the Likud leadership primary on December 19, a run-off race a week later and an election for the party's Knesset slate on January 3. Interim Likud chairman Tzahi Hanegbi, who was one of only two speakers at the event, compared the Likud's current state to 1983, when former prime minister Menachem Begin quit the Prime Minister's Office and the party leadership. "Then also they eulogized us too soon and our opponents tailored their ministerial suits and got ready to divide the spoils," Hanegbi said. "But the reality is stronger than every poll and all the commentators. We have proven time and time again that our party is bigger than any one man. We're embarking on a four-month battle that we will win." Supporters of the six candidates for the Likud leadership cheered on their man when they entered the auditorium. The front-runner in the race, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, received the strongest applause, but he was also booed by some in the crowd. The six candidates signed a document vowing to "run clean campaigns without attacking each other personally," but at a ceremony opening his campaign office in Tel Aviv, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom criticized Netanyahu and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz for their negative campaigns. "I am very angry about them," Shalom said. "We just overcame a difficult experience when Sharon left and they are competing over who can attack the other instead of uniting the party." Shalom's office announced that his campaign slogan would be "Only Silvan can maintain a large Likud." Netanyahu's campaign said his slogan would be "Netanyahu: the real leader of the Likud." Mofaz announced that if he was elected, he would recommend that the Likud's ministers remain in the cabinet. Netanyahu, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and former minister Uzi Landau said they would have the Likud ministers resign. Landau will campaign on Friday in Tel Aviv's Hatikvah quarter. Sharon's supporters who remain in the Likud central committee said they would work to make sure that the MKs formerly known as the Likud rebels would not get elected to the next Knesset. Most Sharon loyalists now support Shalom in the race. Signs with slogans slamming Sharon were hoisted in the air at the event. "We are glad Sharon is gone," read one sign. "Sharon is a fleeting memory," said another. A poll conducted by Prof. Yitzhak Katz for Israel Radio found that the gap between Netanyahu and Mofaz in the race has narrowed. The poll predicted that Netanyahu would win 29 percent of the vote, followed by Mofaz with 22%, Landau 14%, Shalom 12%, Likud activist Moshe Feiglin 8% and Katz 4%. In a run-off race between Netanyahu and Mofaz, Netanyahu would win, 42% to 33%. Netanyahu's spokesman responded that "the important thing is that no matter how many candidates are in the race, Netanyahu will win."