National Union Aims to Corner the Market in Disillusioned Likud Voters

Two days after Benjamin Netanyahu lost the Likud leadership race to Ariel Sharon, David Buzaglo decided to join the National Union.

For the whole of his adult life, the 38-year-old Buzaglo, one of the leaders of the Netanyahu camp in Migdal Ha'emek, had been a Likudnik, just like his parents and his 11 siblings. He allowed himself just a few hours to bask in the glow of Netanyahu's victory in Migdal Ha'emek - the only place where his candidate beat Sharon - and then decided to make the move.

He says that the actual decision was made in the hours following Sharon's impassioned plea to Likud members to cast their votes, despite the terror attacks that claimed 11 Israeli lives that day.

Two days ago, Buzaglo was already being paraded at the first meeting of National Union activists as the party's newest recruit. He has already received a phone call from party chairman Avigdor Lieberman, who is watching with satisfaction as the phenomenon he predicted comes true: disillusioned Likud voters moving over to the National Union.

Even if Lieberman's public call for Netanyahu to leave the Likud and head the National Union was an example of prime electioneering, the party's propaganda machine intends to reach out directly to those disillusioned Likudniks and offer them a new home.

The campaign will focus not just on voters, but on activists, central committee members and branch leaders who no longer feel at home in the Likud. Lieberman prepared the ground for this campaign weeks in advance, when he told those around him to start calling the National Union `the real Likud.' Lieberman himself began mentioning the name of Benjamin Ze'ev Jabotinsky at every opportunity.

"I have spoken to dozens of Likud members in recent days," says Buzaglo. "Some of them will participate in the [Likud Knesset list] primaries, to vote for the candidate they promised to support, and then they will defect to the National Union."

At Sunday's National Union conference, Buzaglo was joined by two central Likud figures: Fanny Tatrovic, a new immigrant activist from Migdal Ha'emek and Colonel (res.) Ya'akov Gabai, who was, until yesterday, a member of the Likud central committee. They say that the decision to leave is not just a personal issue, and not just because their candidate lost. Rather, they claim that the party has lost its way.

"It's a party of strangers," they say. "No-one knows the new people, no-one knows what direction they are heading in. Maybe they are leftists? After all, we all went out and signed up new people - neighbors, brothers-in-law - and what do we know about them? Even Meretz voters have been known to join the Likud to help out a friend. Instead of MK Ayoob Kara, they will give us someone closer to Azmi Bishara. It's no longer the same Likud I used to call home."

The fact that Netanyahu himself is making reconciliatory noises and has said that he intends to remain in the Likud, has done nothing to stop the phenomenon. "Bibi has the right to remain in the Likud," says Buzaglo, "but the person who really decides is the prime minister.

Even the great Mofaz is nothing compared to Arik. Lieberman needs to talk to these people now and tell them that they do have an alternative. We are lucky to have a different home, in which people are saying things the Likud should be saying."

Even before new members began joining from the Likud, the National Union was coming to terms with the juxtaposition of its three composite factions. Sunday's conference was meant to be a first meeting between the three factions' fieldworkers. Knesset member Zvi Hendel tried his hand at a welcome message in Russian; Lieberman stood up to light the Hanukkah candles with Rabbi Benny Elon, only to find he had forgotten to bring a skullcap.

In the audience, immigrants, settlers, Moledet supporters and the ultra-Orthodox mingled.

According to some, the Yisarel Beiteinu members look like bleeding-heart leftists compared to the the Moledet supporters. But the sense of success - which remains unproven in the opinion polls, but nonetheless has grown since more and more Likud members have jumped on board - is the glue that keeps the party together. Michael Kleiner is being portrayed as the impractical rightist, the Likud under Sharon is being portrayed as the left, and the National Union will be marketed as the only true nationalist camp.