Poll: Likudniks Back Early Vote on Leader

MK Benjamin Netanyahu has a slight lead over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the debate over the Likud primaries date, according to a Dialog poll conducted for Haaretz.

Supervised by Professor Camil Fuchs, the poll, taken last night and Tuesday among a sample of 510 Likud Central Committee members, showed that 45.5 percent supported the demand by Netanyahu and MK Uzi Landau to move up the primaries to the end of November. The central committee is comprised of 3,050 members.

The move for earlier primaries could lead to Sharon's departure from the Likud. Some 40.3 percent of those surveyed supported Sharon's position to hold the primaries in April, their originally scheduled date.

The decision will be decided Monday by secret ballot at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. According to the poll, support for early primaries is strongest among those between 18 and 34 and over the age of 65. Fifty-seven percent said they supported the party's remaining in power until the current government officially ends its term in November 2006, while 37 percent said they did not. However, about 16 percent of those who wanted to see the government remain in office also supported moving up the primaries, which represents a contradiction, because moving up the primaries is likely to lead to Sharon's departure from the Likud and a party split, which would automatically weaken the coalition and result in early elections.

Sharon will have to make clear to those supporting both the government's staying in power and early primaries that they cannot have both in order to win next week's ballot.

The third, and perhaps most important, factor is whether Sharon will remain in the Likud. After Sharon and his camp realized that his threat this week to bolt the party had turned against him, they changed their tune, and announced that if Sharon wins, he would remain in the party and run against Netanyahu for chairman. This was what part of the central committee was waiting to hear before making up its mind. If Sharon convinces the central committee of his intention to stay in the party, that could tip the balance in his favor.

Senior Likud members politicking while making the rounds of family celebrations said they find Sharon's position has eroded over the past few days in favor of Netanyahu, apparently due to leaks from the Sharon camp that the prime minister has resolved to leave the party "in any case."

This feeling might have led Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and party whip MK Gideon Sa'ar to present Prime Minister Sharon with an ultimatum at a press conference they called yesterday: If the prime minister did not unconditionally pledge to stay in the party, they would move to Netanyahu's camp.

Sources close to Sharon said in response: "It's amazing that these two, who know Sharon so well, would dare to threaten him with an ultimatum. Don't they know there are easier ways to a [political] death?"

"The die is cast," Netanyahu's camp said after yesterday's press conference, calling it "clear evidence of erosion in our direction." Still, some in Netanyahu's camp are still concerned about a possible Sharon win. Netanyahu's public call for Sharon to announce he is remaining in the Likud might bring about the opposite result that Netanyahu was hoping for. If Sharon announces he is staying, even if he does not mean it, he could win in the central committee, while Netanyahu would suffer not only in the Likud Central Committee, but also among the rank-and-file.

If Sharon leaves the Likud to form a new party, the polls show it would take away between 15 and 20 seats from the Likud. That would mean a win for Sharon, since Netanyahu would not be the next prime minister.