Even a Political Wizard Like Sharon Won't Escape the Likud Convention Unscathed

Arik Sharon's Likud party adversaries call the movement's convention, which will open Wednesday at Tel Aviv's Heichal Hatarbut, the ultimate trap.

Arik Sharon's Likud party adversaries call the movement's convention, which will open Wednesday at Tel Aviv's Heichal Hatarbut, the ultimate trap. Even a political wizard like Sharon won't leave without injury. They compare Sharon to the bull being led to slaughter in Pamplona's running of the bulls, an image that Sharon invokes when describing political processes which he says will bring tragedy to Israel. In any case, they are convinced that Sharon will be weakened when he leaves the convention. Even if a compromise is found which preserves the prime minister's honor, the post-convention Sharon will not be the pre-convention Sharon. His hands will be tied. His authority will be questionable. His control of the Likud party, problematic even in normal times (and who remembers when there were normal times here), will be eroded. He can disregard the convention's decisions as much as he likes, but the MKs, whose voting hands he requires to approve his new government, see themselves as obligated to honor the convention's decisions. The convention is, after all, their electing body.

The circumstances are not promising for Sharon. He is meeting with convention delegates only shortly after reneging on his explicit vow to honor the results of the Likud disengagement referendum. They'll show him what it means to break a promise. The mid-August timing, while half the country is on vacation and the other half is sitting near the air conditioner at home, promises a majority to his opponents. These are the same 700 signers of a petition who forced the Likud court to order the meeting despite the opinion of the party's chairman.

Two convention presidents will meet tonight, cabinet minister Yisrael Katz and Uri Shani. MK Omri Sharon and party director-general Arik Barami will, of course, also attend. "We must make every effort to preserve the constitution and allow individuals to express themselves without, on the other hand, damaging the honor of the premiership," says Katz. A number of the proposed compromises that have been orbiting party halls will be discussed. One such compromise suggests the addition of a small word, "alone," to the language of the decision to reject the Labor Party joining the government. In other words, adoption of this compromise means that the convention supports the participation of Labor in the government with other parties. What other parties? Ultra-Orthodox parties, of course. This is, in any case, a direction in keeping with Sharon's current stand in coalition negotiations. Most of the "rebels" also support this language. The question remains whether or not Labor will agree to sit in the government with the Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Shimon Peres says that he will not sit in the government with the Shas party, which does not support disengagement. Meanwhile, Sharon is not anxious to go with Shas, either, for the same reason. Apparently, there is only one government that Sharon can establish: the Likud, Labor, and United Torah Judaiism - 64 MKs. If freelancer Michael Nudelman, National Union party, and David Tal, One Nation, come aboard, that will be a total of 66.

Sharon's constituents are watching Benjamin Netanyahu closely. He could be the key in this story. They have no doubt, and they even have solid evidence, that Silvan Shalom is encouraging his supporters to come Wednesday and vote against any proposal to forge a coalition with Labor. The practical implication of such a coalition would deny him the Foreign Ministry portfolio.

Netanyahu, however, is still a mystery. There are contradictory reports from the front: Some parties have informed Sharon's constituents that Netanyahu's activists, like Shalom's, are enlisting supporters to come and vote against Sharon. Netanyahu does not desire a coalition with Labor for personal reasons. If Sharon is trounced in the convention and Labor does not join the coalition, this would mean early elections - no later than spring 2005. Netanyahu could stand to benefit from early elections. On the other hand, there are those who tell Sharon's people that Netanyahu's presence is not really palpable in the inner party scene. This may be Netanyahu's way of repaying Sharon for unbridled support in yesterday's budget meeting. In any case, Netanyahu is scheduled to speak Wednesday at the convention. He will speak his piece, and his piece will be clear. People will listen to him, and then they will vote.

One Likud minister said yesterday, "The day after tomorrow, we will know if Netanyahu and Silvan have decided that it is time to go to elections."

Another minister remembered the day in April 1990 when Peres sought to present his government to the Knesset. This was the same government that resulted from the "stinking exercise" that led to the breakdown of the unity government. Peres did not present a government at the end of the day because he lacked a few votes in Knesset. Sharon could find himself in the same position, the minister warns, if he opposes the convention's decision.

The total obligation, not to mention groveling, of Likud MKs and ministers to central committee members is apparent every day of the week in various reception halls throughout the country. Anyone invited to observe the action from the sidelines at major family events will come to the following conclusion: It is no coincidence that elected Likud officials brag that they are brave enough to ignore the convention's decision, and vote against it in the Knesset. Especially since the coming elections are already twinkling on the horizon. To ask for the backing of central committee members or the convention - the same body - a few months after one disobeyed the will of the convention is not wise.

Running from reception hall to reception hall, from family function to family function, and, with all of its differences, from condolence call to condolence call, senior Likud figures have gone beyond any reasonable standard of human behavior. Once MKs and ministers attended only the family events of central committee members, be they weddings, circumcisions or bar mitzvahs. The circle was later widened to include events that involved close relatives of committee members. However, the terror exerted against party officials in the last year by committee members has caused them now to attend the family functions of a nephew, a brother, a grandson, or a cousin.

"This is our most shameful behavior," a highly visible Likud MK said this week. "I can't refuse a single invitation, no matter how ridiculous it is. They force us to travel throughout the country every evening, like a traveling circus, to all sorts of events, and to all their relatives. I don't have a clue who they are. I have already been more than once to events in which they asked an MK or a minister to propose a toast, and the MK doesn't even know who he is supposed to toast, not the name, not the relation to the family, and not his status."

Last week, for example, Likud MKs and ministers were invited to a circumcision. They were invited by a central committee member. However, the host, the father of the baby, was the committee member's brother. At least three of the MKs present did not know if the proud father was also a central committee member. (They later discovered that his wife is a central committee member.) However, they came because a central committee member invited them. One MK counted 12 faction colleagues at the VIP table.

That is not all. Several weeks ago, the nephew of a Druze central committee member married a citizen from the north. Likud MKs also attended this event in the faraway village of Sajur. Three weeks ago, ministers and MKs gave their blessings at the circumcision of a grandson of a central committee member in Holon.

Likud officials came to bless the opening of a supermarket in Kfar Saba owned by another committee member, the dedication of a sambusac pastry pocket bakery in Jeusalem, and the kitchen store of a member in Haifa. They came to console the wife of a committee member in Rishon Letzion who lost one of her parents.

If the host of an event is, himself, a central committee member, the entire government arrives. The brith party, on a Friday afternoon at Kibbutz Nir Am, of the newborn daughter of the chair of the Likud branch in Sderot was attended by six or seven ministers and many MKs. "If only we could meet somewhere, all the members of the faction, wherever they are, and decide that it's enough! That we are not going to any event not hosted by the member of the central committee, himself," fantasized a Likud MK this week. "I just don't have a life, anymore."