As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began a round of talks with cabinet ministers who remained loyal to him during a crucial Likud Central Committee vote this week, Benjamin Netanyahu, shaken by Sharon's upset victory in a key Likud vote, Tuesday branded the prime minister a "tyrant."
Netanyahu said the election was swayed by party Central Committee members who he said caved into pressure and offers of patronage jobs from the prime minister's camp.
Sharon's margin of victory was a slim 104 votes in Monday's Likud Central Committee decision over whether to hold early party leadership primaries. The 1,433 to 1,329 victory over Netanyahu, who pushed for the proposal to hold the primary in 60 days, puts a freeze on the struggle within the Likud until April, when the primaries are scheduled under the party constitution.
Turnout was high, as 91 percent, or 2,762 central committee members out of the listed 3,050 heeded Sharon's call by coming to cast their ballot.
Signalling gratitude for loyalty and perhaps a cabinet reshuffle, Sharon Sunday was to begin a round of talks with stalwart ministers Ehud Olmert, Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Silvan Shalom, Tzachi Hanegbi, and Gideon Ezra.
Conspicuous in their absence from the list of participants were Education Minister Limor Livnat and Health Minister Danny Naveh, who "jumped ship" to the pro-early primaries camp barely 24 hours before the vote. Also likely to incur an effective freeze from Sharon are Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and Likud Knesset faction chair Gideon Sa'ar.
Sharon has yet to foreswear quitting the party and starting a new faction of his own. Netanyahu underscored this in an interview to Army Radio, in which he said of April primaries "I'll be there, but it perturbs me that at the moment, it is unclear if the prime minister will be there.
"He must clearly announce that he will remain in the party and contend in the primaries."
Sharon's polling advisor Kalman Gaier was quoted Tuesday as saying that it would be "very difficult" for Sharon to win the primaries. The ranks of the party membership have been swelled in recent years by far-rightists recruited as a counterweight to Sharon.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, turned aside media characterizations of himself as a loser, the "Simon Peres of the Likud."
"I have had many victories, and have also had defeats," Netanyahu said, calling his showing in the vote "a very, very impressive result."
"If someone had said months ago that a serving prime minister, with all of the might of rule, would be fighting for a razor-thin margin in order to get past his own party - it's as though George Bush had to get past the Republican [National Committee]."
The vote did not ratify Sharon's political views over his own, Netanyahu said. "There were, first of all, those who agreed with his path, but there were others who caved in to the pressures, the baits, the patronage jobs or other things."
Asked if he was saying that the prime minister's victory was achieved dishonestly, Netanyahu did not answer directly. "First of alI, I am not demanding a re-vote. We lost by a few votes."
Netanyahu said the result was likely to be different in the Likud primaries, in which the party's much larger rank-and-file membership is to vote. "Here, [offers of] jobs don't work, and microphones don't work," a reference to a Sunday night incident in which Sharon's microphone failed just as the prime minister began his address. The incident was seen as shifting sympathy to Sharon.
Victory poses dilemma for SharonThe victory places Sharon in an even greater dilemma, according to some commentators, than if he had lost. In fact, Sharon is gaining time to decide on his political future, whether to compete in the Likud or to quit and set up a new political party to fight in the next elections.
"The prime minister thanks you all," MK Ruhama Avraham, a Sharon ally, told a cheering crowd after getting off the phone with the Israeli leader. "The fact is you told him by a majority vote: 'We want you to remain as prime minister and head of the Likud'."
Sharon's men said Monday that he would demand of Netanyahu, as the leader of the rebellion against him, to end the "uprising" and undertake to work as part of the coalition.
Sharon confidants said he intends to bring the state budget for a first Knesset reading after the October recess. Therefore, he will issue an unequivocal demand "that Bibi and the bunch of mavericks he leads commit themselves to respect the results of tonight's vote and support the coalition unconditionally," they said.
Sa'ar, who recently joined Sharon's opponents in demanding an early primary, will have to "shape up and enforce the party line," Sharon's aides said. They said however that "no heads will roll" and that Sharon would not take revenge on ministers who had turned against him.
Sources close to the prime minister said he sees the vote results as a show of confidence in his way as he presented it, and that he intends to continue to implement the Middle East road map peace plan as he has promised.
At the end of the evening, after a vain attempt to put a telephone call through from Sharon to his activists, Avraham climbed on the stage at the Tel Aviv Fair Grounds and said in his name:
"Apparently there has been another technical hitch. He wants to thank all of you. He loves you. Today, we all told him that we want him to remain our prime minister."
Minutes earlier, Netanyahu conceded defeat: "I respect the democratic decision of the Likud. The decision also requires a clear commitment on the part of everyone that they will contend in the primary. [Membership in] the Likud is not a conditional thing."
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