Netanyahu, Landau to boycott PM's unity fest

Likud leadership candidates Binyamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau and several Likud rebel MKs decided Thursday to boycott the festive Likud faction dinner that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will host in his Jerusalem residence on Sunday.

Sharon intends to use the event to present a unified Likud ahead of the start of the Knesset's winter session Monday. But the boycotts are a sign that Sharon will likely continue to have a difficult a time maintaining party unity, despite his victory in last month's Likud central committee vote against advancing the Likud primary.

Netanyahu said the Likud should be uniting around its platform and ideology and not manufactured political events. Sources close to Netanyahu said he was also leaning toward voting against the appointments of ministers Ehud Olmert, Ze'ev Boim and Roni Bar-On.

Instead of attending the event, Landau will visit evacuated Gush Katif settlers at the Jerusalem Gold Hotel, along with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Likud rebel MKs Michael Ratzon, Moshe Kahlon, Ehud Yatom and Ayoub Kara. Likud MKs David Levy and Nomi Blumenthal, who bear personal grudges against Sharon, are also expected to boycott the event.

Sharon appealed in vain for party unity in a meeting with Likud ministers and deputy ministers Thursday night. He said he expected the MKs to "mature" and allow the appointments of the ministers to pass.

"We cannot go on like we did in the Knesset's last session," Sharon said. "All the battles in the faction have ended, so I expect the faction to work in an organized fashion. If the Likud can't make decisions together, the party won't be able to lead."

Landau accused Sharon of caring more about the success of the dinner than the fate of the Gaza Strip evacuees.

"It's unfortunate that Sharon hasn't found the time to visit the former Gaza residents whom he uprooted from their homes and are now living as homeless refugees," he said.

The rebels will meet on Monday to decide how to vote on the appointments.

Sharon met with Boim and Bar-On Thursday night but declined to tell them who will be appointed industry and trade minister and who will receive the immigrant absorption portfolio.

Sharon is also expected to have a difficult time passing the 2006 state budget.

Labor ministers convened Thursday and decided to oppose the budget unless significant changes are made. A team of Labor ministers was appointed to negotiate with Olmert.

Meanwhile, the Labor leadership race continued heating up Thursday. The two top candidates in the race, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Histadrut chief Amir Peretz, met but did not succeed in settling their differences.

A source close to Peres said after the meeting that Peretz was considering quitting the race, but Peretz vehemently denied it.

A poll published in the Globes newspaper Thursday found that Peres would receive 44 percent of the vote and Peretz 22%, a result that would allow Peres to avoid a runoff race against Peretz.

Science Minister Matan Vilna'i attacked Peres, saying he was to blame for Peretz joining the party and threatening to take it over. Vilna'i appealed to Labor's internal court to prevent Peretz from using the Histadrut offices, vehicles and staff to help his election campaign.