A Worthy Punishment for the Likud

It is hard to recall another time when the very loyalty of the main candidates competing to lead the ruling party was in doubt.

Benjamin Netanyahu's people say that if Silvan Shalom loses tomorrow's bid for the Likud party leadership, he will defect to Kadima, whereas Shalom's associates say that if Netanyahu is beaten, he will decamp overseas. It is hard to recall another time when the very loyalty of the main candidates competing to lead the ruling party was in doubt, and this issue was considered an effective weapon in the primary campaign. Embarrassingly for the Likud, this is now the case. It is a risible spectacle: Two famous politicians have pretensions to lead their party, while at the same time they are declaring the transience of the other's ties to it.

The Likud is now getting the punishment it deserves for its degeneration, but the low spirits and pessimism that Netanyahu and Shalom convey only worsen the situation of the party, and do not improve its chances of recovering. Their conduct reflects their personalities, not to mention their ability to serve in the leadership position for which they are seeking election. Both are now being tested in a time of crisis, and both are coming off poorly: They give off a scent of weakness and defeatism. They're not managing to convince that they are sincere in their messages, they do not project self-confidence and determination, they're not exciting and they do not inject new spirit into the Likud ranks. They look and sound tired, browbeaten, as if they have no faith in the party's ability to overcome the crisis. In short, they do not demonstrate leadership.

It looks like the Likud is indeed destined to suffer a stinging defeat in the Knesset elections, but given its starting point, a real leader could have set the party back on its feet. It is enough to look at the magic wand Amir Peretz waved over the Labor Party to get a sense of how far one man, with a hunger for leadership and a credo, can alter the political reality. The objective odds for a Likud recovery are even greater: Kadima's future is shrouded in mist; at this moment its future existence is dependent on the political lifespan of Ariel Sharon. Without Sharon, there is no knowing whether Kadima would survive as an organized entity. That point ought to stand out for those presuming to lead the Likud and instill in them a fighting spirit and optimism, but Shalom and Netanyahu are not acting as though they have internalized it.

Moreover, Sharon will encounter two potential mines en route to his next term as prime minister: The first one, maybe as early as next month, is the verdict in the criminal case in which his son Omri pleaded guilty and was convicted. For the time being, we do not know what sentence the son will receive, just as there is no way of knowing how the father will react if his son is sent to jail: Will he go on standing on the sidelines? The second one is the decisions by the State Prosecutor's Office and the attorney general regarding the investigation into the Cyril Kern matter. The final outcome of that affair is also still unclear, but had a fighting spirit coursed through Likud veins, its leaders would be pinning their hopes on this case.

Even if these two obstacles turn out to be merely speed bumps, and Sharon crosses them with only a slight tremor, the prospects for his political activity are limited - by virtue of his age. A party like the Likud, whose roots are 80 years old and which has an organizational infrastructure and traditional hold on broad publics, does not have enough of a reason to give up in the face of the prediction that Sharon has, at most, four years to manage the country's affairs. With true leadership, the Likud could have come to its senses, done some soul searching, redefined itself, been patient and prepared for better days. Instead, its leaders are proclaiming its suicide.

Netanyahu and Shalom are the very model of the Likud, and electing either of them tomorrow is a just price this party is paying for having gone off course.