PM: A Vote for Netanyahu Is Suicide

On the eve of the Likud Central Committee meeting, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reiterated that he had no intention of "sucking up" to committee members in his speech on Sunday.

Sharon said last week in various private conversations that the members had a simple choice: Stay with the Likud government or crash and burn.

"If they want to commit suicide, let them go with Bibi," Sharon said. "If they want to choose life, they'll come with me."

Sharon told his aides this week not to attack his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, head-on. He has been circumspect in his own meetings with central committee members.

Sharon's supporters have told him that many of Netanyahu's supporters - most of them opposed to the Gaza disengagement - plan on voting with Sharon and against moving up the party primary vote, in order not to shorten the Likud's hold on power and not to hurt their own chances of being elected to the Knesset. Personal insults would only drive these votes away from Sharon.

Sharon and Netanyahu are fighting over every central committee member. The latest polls give Netanyahu a slight advantage.

According to Netanyahu's aides, Sharon is losing his traditional bases of support. At a meeting of Netanyahu supporters held in Ra'anana last night, the former finance minister said the prime minister's party activists are deserting him because they realize that Sharon is leaving in any event. The aides said these activists are unwilling to come forward out of fear of the threats and pressure that Sharon's people will use "with their usual methods."

Netanyahu said in conversations with supporters that even a regime of fear has a point of no return, and that is what is happening now.

Sources in Sharon's camp said Netanyahu is continuing to spread lies. They also said that Sharon is not willing to announce that he will stay in the Likud in any event, and that this will probably be his message in his speech on Sunday night, as well.

Sharon telephoned about 70 party activists yesterday, spending several hours doing so. When asked whether he would leave the party if he loses, he told the activists: "You will see to it that I stay in the Likud. Take care and make sure they don't throw me out."

During his talks with his own supporters, Netanyahu reiterated that Sharon was lying to them and would leave the Likud no matter what. Netanyahu's aides linked the statements made by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz at a meeting of Sharon' supporters in Ga'ash last night to the prime minister's decision to start a new party. See related story, Page A2.

MK Uzi Landau said yesterday at a toast to the New Year in Tel Aviv that "we must win the war against corruption in government. Sharon turned into the Herzl of the Palestinians, the visionary of the Palestinian state. He is doing the job of [the left-wing] Meretz under the aegis of the Likud, and that is why he must be replaced. Sharon intends to create a new party and it's better if he does it now and not on the eve of the elections."