Poll: Netanyahu Would Easily Beat Sharon in Likud Showdown

Former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu would beat Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by a substantial margin in a race for the Likud Party leadership if the party primary were held today, according to a new poll of Likud members conducted for Haaretz by Dialogue.

The poll results indicate that the disengagement has exacted a heavy political price from Sharon: As of now, he has lost his party - his political home. He will therefore face a difficult choice after the pullout is completed: Should he risk running against Netanyahu for the party leadership or, as his advisers are recommending, split the Likud and take his supporters into a new political party?

The poll was conducted on Monday, more than 24 hours after Netanyahu resigned from the cabinet, and indicates that his move sharply increased his support within the Likud.

Every poll for the past year has shown Sharon beating Netanyahu. In recent weeks, the gap has narrowed to 8, 6 or even 4 percent, but never before has a poll shown Netanyahu beating Sharon. The results therefore suggest that Netanyahu's resignation was a carefully thought out political move, and that from his perspective, the timing proved successful.

The poll found that in a three-way race between Sharon, Netanyahu and MK Uzi Landau, the veteran leader of the Likud anti-disengagement camp who formally announced his candidacy yesterday, Netanyahu would win 35 percent of the vote, compared to 29 percent for Sharon and 17 percent for Landau. Thus even in a three-way race, Netanyahu is not far from the 40 percent of Likud Party members needed to win in the first round, without a runoff.

If Landau were to drop out of the race, or if there were a runoff between Sharon and Netanyahu, most of Landau's supporters would switch to Netanyahu, giving him 47 percent of the vote, to 33 percent for Sharon. These results, not surprisingly, correspond closely to Likud members' view of the disengagement: Some 55 percent oppose it, while only 34 percent support the evacuation.

The poll also found that 13 percent of Likud members would abstain in a Sharon-Netanyahu race, while 6 percent said they were undecided. Thus even if the bulk of this additional 19 percent were to line up behind Sharon - if, for instance, the disengagement proved to be a dizzying success - he would still not find it easy to win.

As things stand mow, therefore, it seems as if only a political miracle could change the situation. A successful disengagement, or alternatively a major military operation, might do the trick, but it seems doubtful that the former would actually change the balance of power much, since a majority of Likud members view a unilateral withdrawal under fire, without receiving anything in exchange, as a violation of everything the Likud has stood for throughout its history.

If the picture does not change following the disengagement, Sharon is likely to seriously consider the "big bang" option that Minister Haim Ramon of the Labor Party has been pushing for some time. Ramon has long claimed that Sharon would never be reelected as head of the Likud, and therefore has only two options: abandoning politics altogether, or splitting the Likud and merging his supporters with Labor and Shinui to form a new "centrist" party. Ramon believes that such a party could win a huge number of seats running against a shrunken, Netanyahu-led Likud that Sharon could easily paint as an extreme right-wing party.

Until now, most of the political world has laughed at Ramon's theory. But this poll, and others like it, may turn the "big bang" into a realistic option.

The poll included 526 people, who constitute a representative sample of the Likud's approximately 152,000 members. It was overseen by Professor Camille Fuchs of Tel Aviv University's statistics department. The margin of error was 4 percent.