Analysis / Educating the Likud

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to educate Likud Party members. He doesn't want to suck up to them, or insult them, and he certainly doesn't want to beg them to let him keep his position.

On Sunday evening, he will give a speech outlining his intent, when he addresses the party at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, according to his aides. The Likud Central Committee members will do what they want with the speech; Sharon can always use it later on if he is forced - with a heavy heart - to leave his political home.

It would be highly inaccurate to say that Sharon's people have given up. They will battle with knives and axes until the last party member makes his way to the voting booth. The same goes for Benjamin Netanyahu's people, who last night sounded slightly more optimistic than Sharon's camp.

Last night was given over to attempts by both sides to comprehend, to interpret, to break that hard nut known as the Likud Central Committee. The near-tie in the polls leaves a lot of room for wonder: how to break the tie?

The message that Netanyahu is transmitting to the central committee members is that the longer you keep Sharon in office, the more opportunity you are giving him to create a new party on his own terms, and that would be the end of the Likud.

Sharon's message to the members is that the ostensible technical vote over the date for the party primaries is a vote for shortening the reign of the Likud. Sure you want to punish me, but do you really want to punish yourselves?

Both messages make sense and are falling on fertile ground. The question is, which one will win?

Last night, like every Thursday evening, MKs and cabinet members met up with party members around the country. Their impressions about these meetings reflect those seen in the polls: people are unsure, undecided. Apparently Bibi [Netanyahu] has a majority, but who knows.

The only thing that's sure is that the missile has been launched. It's in the air, a trail of smoke in its wake. We're still waiting to see where the missile will land and how much damage it will do.

Yesterday morning, there was another failed attempt to turn down the flames that threaten to engulf the Likud. For several days, Knesset Speaker Reuben Rivlin has been running back and forth between the people who convened the central committee, a few Likud cabinet ministers, and party chair Tzachi Hanegbi, in an effort to persuade them to soften their proposal.

Rivlin is pumping for a decision to hold the primaries within 140 days, at the beginning of February, rather than within 60 days - the end of November. The petitioners, speaking through their representative, MK Michael Ratzon, were willing to consider the matter.

Rivlin asked Hanegbi for his opinion, and the party chair said Sharon would never agree to the proposal, but that he had a counterproposal: The petitioners should agree to postpone the central committee meeting by a month, to the end of October, and in the intervening period a compromise could be sought. But that idea was rejected.

The interesting part of the story is that Rivlin was the broker. He's in Netanyahu's camp, and Bibi is staunchly opposed to any compromise on the date.

Likud sources said Rivlin wouldn't have tried so hard if he hadn't obtained Netanyahu's (silent) agreement ahead of time.