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"Twenty plus," one of the five candidates for Likud chairmanship estimated this week when asked how many seats he expects the party to win. A senior Likud official who is not in the race said Wednesday, "Find me a leader who brings 19 seats like in '99 and I'll go for it."

Ariel Sharon has mixed feelings as he observes the primaries in the party he founded and then abandoned. If it were up to him, his heir would be neither Shaul Mofaz nor Silvan Shalom, and certainly not "the insect," "him" or "that thing," as he calls the other candidates. Sharon says only one person is worthy of stepping into his shoes: Tzachi Hanegbi. But Hanegbi, who sat in Sharon's seat this week at Likud headquarters in Metzudat Ze'ev as the acting Likud chairman, cannot run due to his legal problems. At the end of December someone else will occupy that seat. The polls predict it will be Benjamin Netanyahu or Mofaz. Whoever is the most organized will win.

The Likud race began this week with a barrage of artillery. Netanyahu, who wants to be perceived as a player equal to Sharon, broke a two-month silence in an impassioned interview with Razi Barkai on Army Radio. In a complete reversal of Netanyahu's generally statesmanlike style, he called Sharon a "tyrant," a "dictator" and "the head of a crime family." In five additional interviews he gave the same day, Netanyahu did not once repeat these phrases. "We made some improvements," his associates said.

The next day, also in an interview with Barkai, Mofaz said Netanyahu was "born in the lap of luxury, with a silver spoon in his mouth, and has not known a moment of distress." Mofaz did not say a single negative word about Sharon. What can he say about someone who until this week was his political patron? That he ate all the burekas during the security assessment meetings? And what will Shalom say about Sharon? Until two days ago, they were close allies − politically and personally. Shalom, after all, hopes all the Likud voters who support Sharon ?(about 45 percent of the voters?) will vote for him in the primaries. Mofaz also has his hopes. Both of them are counting on the "Peretz effect" to do the work for them. But both are having a hard time marketing serious distress: After all, they supported the budget and edicts of Netanyahu.

One of Sharon's advisers said this week, half-jokingly: Half our people will vote for Silvan, and the rest for Moshe Feiglin, head of the Likud's right-wing Jewish Leadership faction.

Bibi ?(Netanyahu?) is good for Sharon because he is causing the remaining moderate Likud voters to bolt from the Likud. But the Likud headed by Bibi is not a possible partner in a Sharon-led coalition, such that Sharon's coalition maneuvering space becomes more limited if Netanayhu wins. If Mofaz or Shalom is elected, they are liable to bring back to the Likud some of its voters who ran off to Sharon, but on the other hand, they would join Sharon the day after the elections and he would be able to form the ultimate unity government, with Labor on his left and the Likud on his right.

Based on the current mood in the Likud, whoever becomes chairman will not survive the winter anyway. If the Likud wins some 20 seats, whoever leads it is likely to be ousted within a few months, maybe even right after the elections.

Sharon's secret weaponHaim Ramon was sitting in the Knesset cafeteria and poking fun at the reporters who eulogized his "big bang" dream last year, when he was told that Amir Peretz had criticized him in his maiden speech as opposition head. He said Ramon destroys existing frameworks and promised the Likud members that within a year, at most, Ramon would also dissolve Sharon's party.

Ramon stood up with a spark in his eye. The street cat within him came to life. He hurried to the Knesset plenum and there, without a written speech, in front of seven MKs, gave one of the most malicious and offensive speeches ever heard against Peretz. "He returned the Histadrut to its darkest days," said Ramon, adding that even the early days are said to be better than the Peretz days.

Ramon provided examples: How Peretz compelled all worker council secretaries to join his One Nation faction, how he turned the Histadrut into an arm of his party, how he vowed to destroy the Labor Party from within the building on Arlozoroff Street in Tel Aviv. Ramon's first speech as a member of Sharon's party was only the beginning. In this election campaign, he will be Sharon's most effective attack dog against the enemy on the left. Peretz has no more dangerous rival than Ramon, because they were both in the Histadrut together, in 1994 and 1995. Ramon is speaking from personal knowledge. He has quite a bit of material to use against Peretz. Now that his big dream has been fulfilled, he has a lot of motivation to prove his strength to his new leader, his new father figure - Sharon.

From Peretz's perspective, it was a mistake to get involved with Ramon for another reason: Peretz is a prime ministerial candidate running against Sharon and whichever Likud candidate wins the primaries in another month. He must run against those candidates only. The headlines yesterday about the Peretz-Ramon confrontation did not help Peretz, but they do help Ramon. Peretz must go for Sharon. He even says his struggle will not be against whoever becomes Likud chairman, but only against Sharon, because that's where he will get seats. "The Sharon party is a base for absorbing those disappointed in the Likud, but it's a temporary base," said Peretz. "When they understand who Sharon is, they'll come to us. Sharon and the Likud will attack each other, and we will profit."

If Ramon had dreams, they certainly looked like the newspaper headlines from the beginning of the week: "Sharon quits," "Sharon crushes the Likud." For more than a year, Ramon has been speaking about this to Omri Sharon, Reuven Adler, Dov Weissglas and even Ariel Sharon. His meetings with the prime minister were always secret and were not written down in any appointment calendar. "I would talk, explain, persuade, and he would sit and take notes in his small notepad," Ramon said this week. ?Sometimes he would say something, tell a joke, but he never said what his opinion was." Ramon describes the moment of the big bang as one of his happiest days in politics. What would have happened if Sharon had decided to stay? "I would have left politics," said Ramon.

Slowly, Sharon began to be convinced. The catalyst came some three weeks ago, when the anti-disengagement Likud "rebels" prevented Sharon from appointing two of his associates, Roni Bar-On and Ze'ev Boim, as ministers. That same night, Sharon gave the sign. The house pollster, Kalman Gayer, initiated several surveys, in addition to the polls conducted by the newspapers. Everything pointed to a major longing in the public, like underground water sources searching for an outlet.

In the course of Gayer's research, a scale from 1-5 was developed, with 1 representing the far left and 5 the far right. Netanyahu, in the eyes of respondents, is in the 5 range and Peretz is close to 1. Some 60 percent of the respondents placed themselves in the center, at 2.3. That's also where they put Sharon. That's the potential of Sharon's Kadima party: a mighty flow of votes from people who see themselves in the center of the political map.

The polls show the Sharon party as getting 30-33 seats. Sharon would take this happily, but he is quite familiar with the dangers lurking in the way: the voting patterns and tribal loyalty that returns people home, to their mother parties, the week before elections. He has been there, along with David Ben-Gurion, Ezer Weizman, Yitzhak Mordechai, Moshe Dayan and others.

The Haaretz-Dialog polls, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs, showed a similar trend this week: After Peretz became Labor chairman, 84 percent of party voters who had abandoned Labor returned to it. But after Sharon founded his party, a large proportion of those same voters left Labor and headed toward Kadima.

At the request of Sharon's strategy advisers, Gayer examined the public ranking of various officials who could potentially join Sharon's party. Shimon Peres, for instance, is quite popular, according to Gayer's polls. But the Sharon camp concluded that this popularity is a mirage and did not ask Peres to join. People sympathize with Peres and admire him, but as soon as he would be put on the list, presumably as No. 2, and start talking about a new Middle East, the damage he would cause would outweigh the benefits. People like Peres, but don't vote for him, Sharon's advisers have decided.

Ehud Barak was also examined, and was a disappointment. Barak does not attract Labor voters and deters Likud voters. Nonetheless, at least one Sharon adviser thinks Barak should be put on the party list. Another person being considered is Dan Meridor, who ranks not too badly. Sharon is interested in putting him on the list, but close associates of the prime minister don't want to hear anything about it. "He creates intrigue and he's a subversive," a Sharon associate said about Meridor. "Even when he's with you he works against you."

The president of Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Avishai Braverman, whose name comes up at every opportunity, causes the Sharon camp to burst out laughing. "This man will come to us only if we promise him he'll be finance minister for three months and prime minister immediately afterwards," a Sharon aide said. Yesterday Braverman held a press conference with Peretz in which he announced he was joining Labor. He is Peretz's candidate for finance minister. Sharon already has a candidate: Ehud Olmert.

We'll meet at the primariesAbout two weeks ago, a Likud Central Committee member asked for help from one of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's assistants. The committee member's son is suspected of stabbing a man and seriously wounding him, and is in custody until the end of the legal proceedings against him; could the minister instruct a prosecutor in the case to ask for only three years in jail instead of six? After recovering from the request, Livni responded in the negative and was threatened by the committee member, who said, you wait and see, I'll make sure you won't get on the next Knesset list.

At that time, Livni already knew there was only a slim chance she would be compelled to run within the Likud: She was a secret partner in the proceedings. Her standing with Sharon is invaluable. Had she chosen to stay in the Likud, it's questionable whether Sharon would have left it. Livni has a rare combination of characteristics that draw voters: She entices Likud voters ?(primarily the "soft Likud"?) as well as Labor and Shinui voters. A member of Herut ?(the Likud's predecessor?) from birth and the daughter of Herut veteran Eitan Livni, Tzipi Livni has gradually moved to the moderate political center, like others before her ?(Meridor, Olmert and Roni Milo?).

In the Likud she was forced to take insults and check innumerable requests for amnesty so as to find a way into the top 20. In Sharon's list, she will apparently be No. 3, after Olmert. Sharon will be the final arbiter of the list, but it will be compiled in consultation with Livni, Olmert and Meir Sheetrit.

"The Likud is certainly a brand name, but it lacks substance," Livni said this week in her Knesset office. "After all, they said Sharon abandoned the Likud way. But the ideological gaps between Mofaz and Silvan [on the one hand] and Bibi, Landau and Feiglin [on the other] are huge. One of them, after all, will be elected Likud chairman − what will the others say? What will the 'Likud way' be then? If Silvan, who supported the disengagement and Sharon, is elected, will his way be the Likud way? And if Bibi is elected, what will the others do? There is no longer any substance - not politically, not economically-socially. No one knows what the Likud is, what it represents, what it says."

The solution, Livni predicted, will be a national referendum. This is the kind of magic that will exert calm over the Likud after the primaries there. "They will decide that the nation, or the party voters, or the central committee, must be asked everything," she said. "But a national referendum is not a political program, it is at most a way of running away from decisions."