"If they want to commit suicide, they can go ahead," said a source close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "If this movement decides to depose the man who brought it, and will bring it, the most Knesset seats, it should go ahead. That's its business."
These remarks reflect not only the understandable bitterness in Ariel Sharon's circles these days, as another intra-movement plan is being forged to replace him quickly by means of bringing forward the primaries for party leadership (the necessary signatures have already been submitted, but the date for the convening of the central committee has not yet been set).
These remarks also show something about the strategy that is coalescing in the "ranch forum" in advance of the convening of the central committee, which will apparently take place after the implementation of the disengagement and at which it will be decided whether to move the primaries up.
This decision will not have much practical significance - in any case the primaries are supposed to be held at the beginning of 2006. However, it will have very powerful symbolic significance - very bad for Sharon and very good for the idea of the "big bang" [whereby moderate Likudniks break off and link up with like-minded politicians from other parties]: The Likud central committee, which is sovereign in the movement, wants to depose the party leader and the prime minister.
In a word, this can be summed up as "Sharon in exchange for power." You want power? - the prime minister's people will say to the central committee members who thirst for revenge. You want Knesset seats? Jobs? Access to ministers? If this is what you want, don't be in any hurry to depose the most effective vote-getting machine you have at your disposal - even if not everything that he has done and will do is to your taste.
Everything depends on the disengagement - this is the new mantra that all the politicians are chanting now, in all the parties, and Sharon's people are no exception. They believe that if the disengagement goes through successfully, and security chaos does not prevail afterward here, Sharon's stock with the public will skyrocket.
In surveys that examine who will bring in more votes - Sharon or Finance Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu at the head of the Likud - the differences will be unambiguous. In the opinion of Sharon's people, the conclusion will be clear: Sharon brings power, government ministries and all that this entails while Bibi brings, at best, waning power with a paucity of jobs, instability, wavering and in the worst case - a dreary oppositionist desert.
In such a scenario, say the prime minister's associates, even anyone who doesn't want Sharon, even anyone who wants to send him shamefaced back to the ranch, will have to think about "the good of the Likud."
And the prime minister's buddies have another warning for a certain government minister, or certain ministers, who might support this move in the party central committee: "Any minister who supports this and instructs his people to vote in favor," they say without invoking the name of Netanyahu, "should know that this could happen to him one day, too, and what will he say then? That this is no way to behave? That a Likudnik doesn't expel a Likudnik?"
And Netanyahu won't fold?
A favorite activity these days among senior people in the Likud, its ministers and its politicos, is calculating the chances of Ariel Sharon's survival after the disengagement. The prevailing sense is that despite the difficulties and the troubles he is experiencing, especially in his own party and among his electorate, there is no need to start writing eulogies.
The Likud voter registration drive, which ended about 10 days ago, strengthened this sense. It showed that Yesha (settlers' acronym for the territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, which means "salvation" in Hebrew) people evinced no interest in renewing their membership in the Likud on the eve of the primaries. They do not see Netanyahu as a better candidate for them than Sharon.
About 80 percent of them told the activists who phoned them that as far as they are concerned, Bibi and Arik (Sharon) are the same thing and that Netanyahu, if he is elected, will not be able to stand up to pressures from the Americans and will make similar concessions - if not more far-reaching ones - than those Sharon has made.
One senior government minister thinks that if the disengagement works out well (again, "everything depends on the disengagement") and relative quiet prevails, Sharon will go to the president and move the general elections forward to the end of December. Under this timetable, the party primaries will be held in mid-November, as October is laden with holidays.
Netanyahu will not have time to conduct a campaign, the public opinion polls will smile benignly on Sharon, registered Likud party members will internalize how destructive, corrupting and unnecessary the stay in Gaza has been, the opponents of the disengagement will look fanatical and irrelevant, the Labor Party will not be organized - and Sharon will gallop to another victory.
Another senior minister thinks that Sharon has lost the Likud forever and therefore his interest is to survive this term for as long as he can. Thus, this minister believes, Sharon will not initiate any independent or hasty move. He will try to get the 2006 budget passed with the Labor Party, or with the help of Shinui or, alternatively, to postpone the approval of the budget to the last day of March, 2006, and then go into elections at the end of June, 2006, as required by law.
There is nothing like the saying "troubles come in droves" to describe the situation of Histadrut labor federation chairman MK Amir Peretz (Labor) these days. Peretz's troubles began with the postponement of the elections for head of the Labor Party in the context of fictive voter registration; they continued in the Knesset, where last week the law that prohibits a Knesset member from serving as head of the Histadrut passed (in its first reading).
And this is not all: In the near future the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will start discussing the preparation of the first reading of a law prohibiting the Histadrut from demanding membership dues and organization levies beyond a certain level. This law, if it is passed, will cost the Histadrut about NIS 21 million a year, a sum without which it will find it difficult to survive.
The law was initiated by MK Haim Katz, formerly a member of Peretz's One Nation faction and now a member of the Likud. Yes, the Likud is behind this move, too. Its heads have marked Peretz and the Histadrut, which the Likud central committee loathes deeply, as targets for elimination, and they are attacking them and laying siege to them from every side.
The proposed law prohibits the Histadrut from raising its organizational levy, which it exacts from government employees who are not members of the Histadrut - from NIS 73 a month, at present - to NIS 95 a month. Katz says that his proposal is aimed at redressing a distortion "that is unparalleled anywhere in the world," whereby a worker who is not a member of the labor federation is required to pay such a high monthly sum for zero services. Maybe NIS 73 a month for nothing, but NIS 95?
As noted, the proposal has been passed in its preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum and it was decided to send it to the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee for the completion of its preparation in advance of its first, second and third readings.
The committee is now headed by MK Shaul Yahalom (National Religious Party). The NRP is an ally of Peretz's and his coalition partner in the Histadrut. Its four MKs stood behind Peretz in the vote on the prohibition against holding two positions. Ostensibly, Peretz should have no cause to be upset: When the chairman of the relevant committee is on your side, there is no fear that a law that concerns you will be hurried along en route to the plenum.
But here, too, a surprise awaited Peretz. It turns out that Yahalom's chairmanship of the committee is about to expire soon. The NRP is no longer a member of the government coalition and the position is slated to be transferred into the hands of a member of the coalition. The name of the coalition member who is in line for appointment as head of the committee is Haim Katz, of the Likud.
Katz, if he wants to, can accelerate the preparation of his law, hold a meeting at which only he is present, vote unanimously - or as they say in Hebrew, with "one mouth" - in favor of himself and send the law flying into the plenum. He has all the authority to do so. However, he says that it is not his intention to play any tricks. He will act responsibly and will hold several thorough and comprehensive meetings.
But all this will happen during the summer recess, so that the law will come up for a vote at the beginning of the next session. "The merry Ceausescu days at the Histadrut," he promises, "are about to end."
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