Analysis / The Likud in Crisis: Either Way, Sharon Wins

The most widely hated body in the nation manages to plummet deeper into the depths of vile behavior.

There is no question about who stands to gain from Sunday night's Likud Central Committee meeting: The big winner is Ariel Sharon. If, contrary to all the predictions, Sharon wins in Monday's battle over the date of the primaries, he will owe his victory to those 20 minutes of silence, standing in front of a microphone brutally disconnected just as he approached to deliver his speech.

If Sharon loses the vote and embarks on a new path, with a new party, he once again emerges victorious: The Likud Central Committee, the most widely detested body in the nation, managed Sunday night to plummet deeper into the depths of vile, repugnant behavior than ever before.

In doing so, the members gave Sharon's new party a handsome gift, a holiday bonus, which will no doubt take away a few votes from Likud, at least in the short term. Look, look what I'm leaving behind, Sharon will say, now look what Netanyahu is left with. Senior members of the Likud said on Sunday night that Sharon wants so badly to make a mockery of the Likud, that he doesn't mind putting himself to shame.

In Netanyahu's camp, they saw the gaiety displayed by Sharon's men at the end of the event, and deduced from this that the act of sabotage against the electric system was a planned provocation, set up by Sharon's closest aides. Who else had access to the box? Netanyahu's spokesman asked. Who is in charge of the convention, who granted the permits and licenses, if not the Likud leadership, which answers directly to Sharon.

As it is, some of those who were seated on the stage got the impression that those closest to Sharon were not really surprised by what was happening. Right after Sharon's microphone was first disconnected and the prime minister went back to his seat, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told some of the ministers sitting next to him: He (Sharon) did not even want to speak. That can't be, the ministers said, he prepared a speech. No, Rivlin persisted, you will see - he won't speak. And that is what happened.

Though we are fond of conspiracy theories, it is hard to imagine Sharon sitting for hours and preparing a speech while his aides spend the time preparing explosives to prevent him from delivering the address which was, incidentally, a speech of inflammatory protest that wouldn't have won many fans for Sharon in his party's central committee.

The speech, undelivered, but handed out to reporters, spoke explicitly of embarking on a new path, it spoke of a different Likud, of a "central, liberal-nationalist" movement whose actions serve "to unify the nation." Ministers Meir Sheetrit and Tzipi Livni also made similar addresses. Those listening could have no doubt that when Sharon leaves, they are going with him. It is equally hard to imagine that Netanyahu may be behind the act. He is much too sophisticated.

Ariel Sharon's camp rallied on Sunday night to block accusations of a planned provocation. If Sharon wanted to win so badly, his aides said, he could have committed himself not to leave the Likud, and won Monday's vote.

Why did he need those humiliating pictures, broadcast all over the world, of the prime minister of Israel, who only a week ago gave a speech at the UN in front of dozens of leaders, standing embarrassed, in front of a dead microphone, running hither and thither on the stage, from the chair to the podium, from the podium to the chair, until he was forced to leave the area without a word.

By the time it was Sharon's turn, the feeling in the hall was that there was gathering momentum to side with Bibi-Landau and the supporters of the proposal to move up the primaries. Netanyahu's aides conveyed restraint, and barely disturbed Sharon and those who spoke for him. The main mass of people in the front of the hall, screeching disturbers who hurled insults at Netanyahu and Yisrael Katz, his new-old crony, were Sharon's supporters. Not all of them were members of the central committee.

The dispute between Sharon and Netanyahu over the date of the primaries, which will come to a climax in Monday's vote, is between the "field" and the "establishment."

The "field" includes mainly activists in the field who are driven by a passion for revenge against Sharon, for betraying the old ways of the Likud, denying promises and disregarding the results of the Likud referendum on the disengagement.

The "establishment" is comprised of most of the ministers, who stood beside the prime minister on Sunday night. Apart from his familiar supporters, he managed to enlist Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who, though he didn?t say so specifically, could be interpreted as speaking against early primaries, along with minister Tzachi Hanegbi.

The ministers who sided with the other camp were Katz and Limor Livnat. Livnat just this Saturday had spoken out against early primaries, but on Sunday, when the smell of Netanyahu's victory wafted into her nose, made a clumsy skip over to his camp, and here she is, already preaching to everyone. Livnat, someone has said, in her role as a minister of sports, could launch a new athletic event: Jumping onto bandwagons.

Most of the members of the central committee will undoubtedly take part Monday in the most important and dramatic vote that has ever taken place in a political movement in Israel. On Sunday night, two Likud MKs stood in the back of the hall, engaged in conversation. Can you imagine, one said to the other, that Labor is in power, with 40 seats in Knesset, and the Likud is in the opposition, with 20, and the Labor Central Committee gets together to shorten its term? Never, said the respondent. Never, agreed the first MK. Incidentally, both of them will vote on Monday in support of holding early primaries.