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A large majority of Likud members believe, or rather fear, that if the movement splits into two parties before national elections, with the Likud being led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a new independent party led by Prime Minister Sharon Ariel Sharon, it would increase the chances of defeat and send them back to wandering in the desert of opposition.

A poll by Haaretz-Dialog, conducted by Prof. Camil Fuchs, was conducted this week among a representative sample of Likud Party members. Of those questioned, 53.6 percent said that a scenario in which Netanyahu is chosen to lead the party and Sharon resigned to create an independent list would increase the chances of the Likud losing political power. Some 27.5 percent of respondents said that such a scenario would increase the party's chance of winning a national election - 17.4 percent said they didn't know and 1.5 percent refused to respond.

The findings help to explain why a turnabout in Likud members' attitudes toward Sharon and Netanyahu's candidacies as well as the date of party primaries has taken place in the past week. Sharon's spin, which suggested that bringing the primaries up to November would cause the PM to resign immediately, sowed fear in the hearts of Likud members about losing their position in government.

Apparently the Likud members, who want to punish Sharon for the disengagement from Gaza, understand that his leaving would harm them most of all. Public opinion polls are projecting that if Netanyahu leads the Likud, he would not be able to put together a government, because Sharon's party would steal around half of the Likud's mandates.

This belief, gradually seeping into the hearts of Likud members, has caused a significant shrinkage of Netanyahu's lead in support for party leadership and the primary date question. The Likud Central Committee will vote on the primary date on September 26.

Sharon, wisely, refuses to promise that he would not resign if he loses, thus causing many central committee members to transfer their loyalty, however begrudgingly, to him.

Additional findings of the poll indicate that Netanyahu is losing ground among Likud members, who until recently were considered his core base of security. Yesterday, Likud members received direct mail from Netanyahu in which he accused Sharon of deliberately harming the Likud in order to help Vice Premier Shimon Peres get elected as prime minister.

Yesterday, Likud members also received a recorded voice message from Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the grandson of the movement founder of the same name, who supports Netanyahu's candidacy, in which he called on them to "remove the Sharon family from the seat of government."

Yesterday, Netanyahu's campaign slogan was also released: "Netanyahu. The Real Likud."