Likud in Exchange for Disengagement

Wednesday's Likud convention will be the death knell for Ariel Sharon's most memorable election promise: To reinstitute primaries in the Likud.

Wednesday's Likud convention in Tel Aviv on Wednesday will be the death knell for Ariel Sharon's most memorable election promise. In January 2003 he promised to transfer the process of selecting the Likud list for the Knesset from the central committee to the registered members of the party. In other words, he promised to reinstitute primaries in the Likud.

Sharon made that promise when reports of the corruption surrounding the selection of Likud Knesset members were at their height. He appointed the justice minister at the time, Meir Sheetrit (now Deputy Speaker of the Knesset) to head the committee that prepared proposed legislation. The proposal never made it to a vote in the Knesset. If the delegates to the Likud convention approve on Thursday what their party's constitution committee proposes at the convention, there never will be primaries in the Likud.

The proposed decision that was initiated by Tzachi Hanegbi says simply that a Likud Knesset member who votes against the party's election method will be ineligible for reelection to the next Knesset as a Likud member.

Since the members of the convention have an interest in keeping the selection process in their own hands, presumably the proposal will be passed unanimously, or nearly so. The convention will remain under control.

The certain death of Sharon's proposal to hold primaries in the Likud has a broader implication - the Likud in exchange for the disengagement.

Ever since the Likud referendum on Sharon's disengagement plan, the results of which Sharon chose to ignore, he has changed direction. He began to return to his party and play by the rules.

Sharon has internalized these rules. He has realized that it makes no difference how strong he is among the public - he also has to maintain his strength within his own party. Thus he cooperated with the election of the institutions in the Likud and with the election of the heads of those institutions. He has abided by the convention's ruling that forbade him to bring Labor into the government together with the secularist Shinui. Most importantly, he kicked Shinui out of his government and asked again for the convention's permission to embark on negotiations with the Labor Party - this time together with the religious parties.

Sharon has come back, with his wings a bit clipped, to the party's straight and narrow. But this is a small price to pay for the party's approval of the disengagement plan. A vote at the last Likud convention proved that, among party activists, ideology placed second in importance to having their opinions heard.

"The Likud has succeeded in rehabilitating itself," said the eternal president of the outgoing convention and the chairman elect of the secretariat, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz. "All the attempts to circumvent the party have failed. All the talk about the `big bang,' about a government with Shinui and Labor that would pave the way to a new party - nobody is hearing about that any more. All of the decisions will be within the Likud. The elections for Knesset members will be in the central committee. Flaws will be resolved internally, during the coming week."

Katz is referring to another proposal that will come up for a vote, a proposal that the constitution committee, which he heads, has approved and which is aimed at preventing candidates who only recently joined the party from running for a place on the Knesset list. The proposed rule stipulates that party members chosen for the Knesset list or municipal elections (mayoralty), must have joined at least three years previously. Exceptions will be made only under unusual circumstances - in the case of a recently retired IDF general who wishes to join the party and be placed on the Knesset list.

Ramon talked, Netanyahu listened

At the end of last week, sources in Likud and Labor discovered that Ramon was involved in discussions with Netanyahu. Ramon's aim: to bring Amir Peretz, head of the Histadrut labor federation chairman and chairman of the One Nation faction, into the government and into the coalition.

This didn't work out. Netanyahu did not like the idea, but the person who nipped it in the bud was Likud MK Omri Sharon, the prime minister's son. Peretz's spokesman was unaware of the Ramon-Netanyahu discussions until yesterday afternoon. The first initiative came from Ramon, who wanted to bring three Knesset members, members of the One Nation faction - Peretz, Ilan Cohen and David Tal - into the disengagement coalition.

Ramon said yesterday that the contacts were not in Peretz's name, and that he was not representing Peretz. "It was entirely my own initiative." It is hard to believe that Ramon would have embarked on this campaign without Peretz's knowledge and consent. According to other Labor sources, Peretz did give Ramon permission to conduct the preliminary negotiations. But only on condition that Peretz remain ostensibly uninvolved.

If Labor sources are to be believed, Ramon talked about a position of minister without portfolio for Peretz and freedom for him and his colleagues in One Nation to vote with their consciences on economic matters - except when the fate of the government lies in the balance. Ramon promised that Peretz would not topple the government.

Senior Likud people who knew about the secret contacts paint a different picture: Peretz's conditions for joining the government also included a reexamination of the sea port reforms - as well as other reforms particularly favored by Netanyahu.

But the main obstacle to Peretz's appointment was the demand that he be given a ministerial appointment. A ninth minister on behalf of the expanded Labor faction, which together with One Nation consists of 21 Knesset members - or 22 with David Tal. This was too much for Omri Sharon, who has come under harsh criticism from Likud activists for giving the Interior portfolio to Labor. "Nineteen Labor Knesset members got eight ministries, as if they were 24 Knesset members," they are saying in the Likud. "Now they want nine ministers, for 21 Knesset members. This is too high a price and the demand, in itself, is impertinent."

"The calculation is something else," they are saying at Labor. "The agreement was for seven ministers for the Labor Party. After we gave up the Foreign Affairs portfolio, we got compensation - an eighth ministry. If Amir Peretz joins with his colleagues, we deserve an additional ministry. This is no more impertinent than giving United Torah Judaism, with five Knesset members, two deputy ministers, one of them with the status of minister, and the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee."

As noted, Omri Sharon said no. Ramon went on his way. Now just one question remains open: What happened to Peretz's vow, made on and off the record, that he would never, ever, be part of a government in which Netanyahu is the finance minister?

There's no coalition, and no opposition

Yesterday afternoon it was still not clear whether the United Torah Judaism faction was going to join the Sharon-Peres government in order to enable the implementation of the disengagement from Gaza. MK Avraham Ravitz said he thought that the rabbis' decision would come last night. If it is positive, Sharon will present his government - or, more precisely, he will ask to bring new ministers into the existing government; if the response is negative, elections are inevitable. The political system has found itself in a strange interim position: There is no coalition, but there is also no opposition. Only under Sharon can such a thing happen.

Shas chairman MK Eli Yishai is preparing for the role of chairman of the opposition. He is convinced that he will obtain the necessary number of signatures (more than half the members of the opposition) in order to take precedence over MK Yosef Lapid, the chairman of Shinui, the largest faction in the opposition. Yishai is in a race against time: If UTJ joins the government on Wednesday, the signatures of its five Knesset members who support him will be invalid. This, too, is a strange situation: UTJ signed for Yishai so that as chairman of the opposition he would be able to make Lapid's life miserable on issues of religion and state. No one really wants to see him as head of the opposition, but personal sympathy - or in the case of Lapid, antipathy - doesn't always tip the scales.

Yesterday Lapid called Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and asked to be declared head of the opposition. Rivlin refused Lapid's request. He based his decision on the opinion of legal specialist Dr. Suzy Navot; Navot advised that he should declare a new head of the opposition only if the current head, Shimon Peres, fails to inform him officially that Labor has been unable to agree that party members are obligated to support the government.

Peres hastened to send the required document to Rivlin. On paper, at least, he is still head of the opposition. This too is strange: Officially, he is head of the opposition. Unofficially, he is vice premier, according to a coalition agreement that has been approved in the Labor Party, but has not yet been signed.