Sharon woos Likud mayors

If preparing elections is akin to grooming for battle, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Kadima Party intend to recruit their officers corps Tuesday night when dozens of mayors and regional council heads attend a Kadima conference at the prime minister's residence. Sharon's aides are counting on the invitees to summon their grassroots activists to form the nascent party's skeleton. The mayors' pow-wow, with leaders from Right and Left, Jews, Druze and Arabs in attendance, is also Sharon's first showdown with his former party, Likud. The meeting's success, say analysts and activists, could prove vital to Kadima's future. From an unscientific straw poll conducted by The Jerusalem Post, some mayors are to attend and throw their support for Kadima, while other Likud mayors intend to boycott the event. Some will go "just to listen." On Sunday Sharon's aides reportedly estimated that 70 of Likud's 100 or so mayors would show up. By Monday those numbers were revised to a more modest 30 Likud mayors. Sharon's meeting with the mayors comes as Likud leaders kick off their campaigns ahead of the December 19th primaries. Trying to staunch the anticipated hemorrhaging of prominent mayors to Kadima, certain Likud enforcers threatened to censure those who showed up. A de facto shunning from what had been until last week Israel's largest party was one of the threats. Uzi Cohen, deputy mayor of Ra'anana and one of Likud's top powerbrokers called the mayors heading to the conference, "deserters." He said a number of them would throw their lot with the prime minister, but that it was a bad bed. Kadima, now dubbed by some Likud activists as the "Poll Party" for its existence in polling figures only, has "no future," said Cohen. Yoel Lavi, the mayor of Lod, is a self-described agnostic when it comes to Kadima. Nevertheless, "the prime minister has invited me and I intend to go and listen to what the man has to say." Lavi shrugged off threats of political revenge. "What revenge?" he exclaimed. "Are they going to revoke my Likud membership card? Whatever they do, they can't strip me of my pull in the party." Lavi, a long-time supporter of Sharon, intends to wait out the Likud primaries before declaring his loyalty. A number of Likud mayors opposed to the conference would not return the Post's calls while others preferred not to answer. Professor Amnon Sela of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya noted that one of the ways Likud so dramatically seized power from Labor in the 1970s was through controlling a sizable chunk of the country's mayors. "Having the local leadership at your hip translates into huge power," he said. "The struggle now," observed Sela, "is to create the momentum of success. Getting the mayors on your side might carry even more symbolic weight than their support means in terms of voters at the polls." Likud clearly dreads losing the mayors, he added. Should the "deserters" like Lod's Lavi choose to "return home," warned Likud kingmaker Cohen, "They would be left behind [in the party lists,] far behind." Eli Levi, head of the Lahavim Regional Council and one of the event's organizers, estimates between 40 and 50 mayors and council heads will make the trip to Jerusalem. "Those will be the people who heed their national responsibility ahead of party politics," he said. "Perhaps we'll even begin delegating duties," such as setting up Kadima offices in certain towns, he added. Yossi Nishri, a Likud-affiliated mayor of the cozy Tel Aviv suburb of Kiryat Ono felt little remorse for abandoning his party. "So if the price of attendance tomorrow is that they want me out of Likud, well so be it." Likud had allotted Nishri only tepid support for his Kiryat Ono bid. So Nishri feverishly built a base of local support. And he intends to lend that support and activism to Kadima's cause, he said. Into the fray will also jump former Labor leaders, such as Negev Heights Regional Council head, Shmulik Rifman. He intends to bring along elements of the kibbutz and moshav movement who have never before voted anything but Labor or its more socialist predecessors. Current Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz's path is "too far left for me," said Rifman. "That's why I am going with Arik [Sharon], the man and his path." Rifman, a longtime political operative, admitted that "Kadima is a single use plus party with perhaps only one or two rounds of elections in it." Nevertheless, "my heart and my legs are taking me towards Arik."