Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's narrow victory in the Likud Central Committee Monday night has caused a dramatic turnabout in the balance of power between Sharon and his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu: A Haaretz-Dialog poll of Likud members conducted last night found that if the party's leadership primary were held today, Sharon would beat Netanyahu by 47.6 percent to 33.8 percent.
Three weeks ago, the situation was reversed: Netanyahu edged out Sharon by six percentage points (44 percent to 38 percent). And two weeks before that, Netanyahu would have won in a landslide, with 47 percent of the vote, compared to 30 percent for Sharon. Thus over the past six weeks, Netanyahu's standing among Likud members has been in free fall - and it is still not clear when, if ever, Netanyahu's parachute will open.
Sharon's sudden surge in the polls indicates that even Likud members - whom most experts view as ideological voters uninterested in the issues that motivate the central committee, such as government jobs - prefer a winner to a loser.
On the other hand, it must be remembered that two months before the Likud referendum on the disengagement, in spring 2004, the polls also showed Sharon winning by a sizable margin. By the day of the vote, however, that margin had disappeared, and 60 percent of party members ended up voting against the plan.
Following Sharon's victory in the central committee, his associates have indicated that he is now leaning toward running in the Likud's leadership primary instead of breaking away and forming his own party. That will remain true for precisely as long as he believes that he has a good chance of winning the primary. But if Sharon continues to gain ground at Netanyahu's expense, it is very possible that he will enter the next Knesset as head of the Likud - something that would have seemed like a fantasy just two days ago.
The Dialog poll also examined a four-way race among Sharon, Netanyahu, Uzi Landau and Moshe Feiglin. Here, too, the responses indicated that Sharon has gained significant ground at his rivals' expense: He would receive 45.5 percent of the vote, enough to win in the first round, with no need for a runoff. Netanyahu would win 20.6 percent, Landau 15.9 percent and Feiglin, head of the "Jewish Leadership" movement, only 4.9 percent.
When respondents were asked how they thought the central committee vote would affect the outcome of the primary, 46 percent said it increased Sharon's chances of winning, and 45 percent said that it decreased Netanyahu's chances; 45 percent said Landau would be unaffected.
The results thus confirm the main fear expressed by Netanyahu's associates following the vote: that Netanyahu would be perceived as a "loser," as someone who makes bad decisions, and that this image would prevent him from winning the important battle for the party leadership.
The survey, conducted under the supervision of Professor Camil Fuchs, polled a representative sample of 512 of the Likud's approximately 140,000 members. The results have a margin of error of 4.34 percent.
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