Text size

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has no intention of promising to remain in the Likud should he lose the party's leadership primary, even though he is under growing pressure from fellow Likud ministers to do so, Sharon's associates said Sunday.

Cracks are also starting to show in the campaign of the prime minister's major rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the Likud Party leadership: His strategic adviser of the past two-and-a-half years, Shaya Segal, resigned this week because he opposes Netanyahu's strategy.

Specifically, Segal objected to Netanyahu's resignation from the Finance Ministry and the press conference that he gave for Likud Party Central Committee members last week, at which he announced his candidacy. Both of these steps, as well as others that Segal opposes, were recommended by some of Netanyahu's other advisers.

The remarks of Likud ministers on Sharon's plans came after the prime minister and his main rival, Netanyahu, both rejected a compromise over the primary's date that ministers Silvan Shalom, Tzachi Hanegbi and Limor Livnat proposed Sunday.

The three ministers, who plan to meet again with both candidates in the coming days, suggested that the primary be held in February and that both publicly pledge to remain in the Likud if they lose. Netanyahu and the third candidate, MK Uzi Landau, both want the primary to be held in November or December, while Sharon prefers to hold it in May 2006, six months before the scheduled date for national election, in November 2006.

Netanyahu has already announced that he would remain in the Likud if he loses, but Sharon has publicly declared that he would never agree to be Netanyahu's No. 2. Sharon has also refused to pledge to remain in the Likud in private conversations with ministers who support him. That has posed a problem for some of these ministers. "How can we go with him if he doesn't promise to remain in the Likud?" asked one.

Sharon's associates said that Sharon had announced that he intends to win the primary, so the question of what he would do if he lost is not even on his agenda. But beyond that, they added, he viewed the bid to advance the primary date as an attempt to depose him, and "if he is ousted, who says he has to remain in the party that ousted him?" one PM associate asked.

Sharon's main concern, however, is that by publicly pledging to remain in the party, he would undermine his campaign to defeat the proposal to advance the primary. The Likud Central Committee is slated to vote on this proposal on September 26, and Sharon believes that committee members are more likely to reject it if they fear that approving it would cause him to leave and form his own party. Such a party would eat into the Likud's support and thereby diminish its power - and therefore the power of the central committee.

Shalom, Livnat and Hanegbi said Sunday that they were advocating the compromise on the primary issue to prevent the Likud from splitting. "It's inconceivable that a party would, with its own hands, work to remove itself from power," said Livnat. Shalom, speaking to party activists in Kiryat Gat, said that he intended to submit his proposal to the central committee even if Netanyahu and Sharon continue to reject it.

These three cabinet members, along with Health Minister Dan Naveh and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, are officially remaining neutral in the battle over the primary. The other Likud ministers, however, all side with Sharon.

Sharon's supporters sounded upbeat Sunday about the progress of the premier's efforts to mobilize opposition to the proposal. In a secret ballot, they said, even some of the MKs who led the fight against the disengagement would vote against advancing the primary, since they do not want to shorten their own terms of office.

Meanwhile, however, both Sharon and Netanyahu are devoting a substantial portion of their time to meeting with party activists and central committee members, to mobilize support for their respective positions. Both believe that the central committee vote will be close, and agree that a higher turnout would favor Sharon.

Netanyahu is still looking for a chief of staff to manage his campaign in favor of advancing the primary, after Yoav Hurvitz told him Sunday that personal reasons prevented him from accepting the job. It now appears likely that the job will go to Yehiel Leiter, a key Netanyahu advisor.

Related links: * Top Netanyahu aide to quit over strategy* Likud MKs reach deal on PM's ousting