Who Will Be the Likud's Next Big Brother?

One of the Likud government ministers said this week that some of the members who intended to vote against Sharon said: "It's not that we care about Gaza. It can go to hell. But did you see how he (Sharon) relates to us? The way he scorns us? We'll show him."

It used to be that there was a body called the secretariat in the Likud. This was an institution. With power, with muscle. The role of the secretariat was to run the movement. To supervise the finances, the director-general, the officials, the processes of membership registration and the internal elections. Nothing would move at the Likud headquarters, Metzudat Ze'ev, without the secretariat's approval.

Until Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came along, about three and a half years ago. Joshua Matza, the eternal chairman of the secretariat, hoped to be a minister in Sharon's government, but after he was left out he decided to go to New York, to head the Israel Bonds organization. In a normal political party they would have immediately chosen a new chairman. But the Likud is the least democratic of the democratic movements in this country. After Matza departed, they did organize internal elections for the position of secretariat chairman. The person who was chosen was Moshe Arens, Sharon's rival.

At the time, Arens was identified (though wrongly, he says) with Benjamin Netanyahu (now finance minister) who was on the eve of his return to politics. Arens took the chair, but then Sharon's people applied to the party's tribunal, which, in a very peculiar decision, revoked the election. Since then there has not been a secretariat in the Likud.

Things are being run comfortably and efficiently, out of sight, by Sharon's son MK Omri Sharon and by the director general, Arik Barmi, Sharon's appointment. This state of affairs is about to change. After 12 years during which no secretariat was elected, the Likud convention, which will meet tomorrow in Tel Aviv, will take a series of decisions that will have considerable influence on the functioning of the Likud. In accordance with the decision of the party tribunal, the convention, which will shortly become the central committee, will be convened for four meetings, once a month, from tomorrow until December.

In October all the institutions will be elected: the central committee, the secretariat and the bureau. In November, the new central committee will elect the heads of the institutions. The person who wants to contend for position of chairman of the secretariat is the president of the outgoing convention, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Yisrael Katz.

This is an interesting development. Katz is identified with Benjamin Netanyahu. Two years ago he headed his campaign team in the primaries against Sharon. Katz is also among the opponents to Sharon's disengagement plan.

In the last round, Katz ran Arens against Sharon's candidate, Eitan Sulemi. On the eve of that race between Sharon and Netanyahu, Katz hoped that Arens, as chairman of the secretariat, would keep an eye on the activity of the Metzuda. Now, on the eve of possible elections, and perhaps also on the eve of another contest between Sharon and Netanyahu, Katz feels sufficiently confident to seek the position of Big Brother for himself.

Sharon will have to decide soon how to act in face of this development. His possibilities are: to run a candidate of his own against Katz - although at the moment it is hard to see who can defeat the popular Katz on behalf of the prime minister, to maintain neutrality or to announce that he is supporting Katz. In any case, although Katz has been taking pains to maintain a good relationship with the Sharon ever since the latter appointed him minister of agriculture in his second government, it is clear that for Sharon, his son and his director general, the sweet, carefree life is about to come to an end.

Yisrael Katz, who does not hasten to do anything drastic, could yet turn out to be Sharon's preferred alternative, if Minister without portfolio Uzi Landau, Sharon's most hard-line and extreme foe in the Likud, also decides to contend for the position. Landau, who trounced Sharon both in the party members' referendum and at the Likud convention about a month ago, is considering a bid for one of the three institutions: the central committee, the secretariat or the bureau (which he has headed in recent years).

In recent years, the bureau has become a dazed and eccentric body, made up in large part of elderly Likudniks, dear members next to whom Landau looks like a moderate and considered person. Once every few months Landau convenes the bureau for a long-winded and weighty debate, at the end of which some extreme, and sometimes incendiary decision is taken that negates - always negates - any diplomatic move that happens to be on the agenda at the moment.

The irrelevancy of the bureau for the functioning of the Likud is clear to Landau. Borne by the waves his success, he is destining for himself a more important position in the Likud and in public life altogether. Therefore, he is considering whether to run for head of the secretariat, against Katz, or for head of the central committee, against Minister without portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi, who is interested in a second term. In either case this is not a simple race against two of the strongest people in the Likud. Hanegbi, at present, is in the role of victim. Martyr. It is hard to foresee his defeat in a struggle for the affection of the members of central committee. Landau will have to decide against whom he will run - if he runs.

Landau said yesterday that he will decide soon. If he runs against Hanegbi, he will almost certainly win the support of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his people in the convention. Shalom wants to take revenge on Hanegbi, who when it was relevant declared his support for a government with the Labor Party. Sharon saw this as a move that was designed to harm him. When there was talk of Shalom getting an "expanded" Interior portfolio, like Mahmoud Dahlan in the Palestinian Authority, Hanegbi hastened to declare that he would be delighted to pass his portfolio, Public Security, along to Shalom, "in order to ensure the wholeness of the Likud."

The convention that meets tomorrow at Heikhal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv is slated to choose a new constitution committee. The convention will have to decide until when it will prolong the tenure of the central committee (as noted, the two bodies are one and the same). At the meeting of the convention in March of this year, when the Likud members' referendum was set, it was decided, in the midst of the fracas, to prolong its tenure as central committee for five years.

The justification used was suggested by Yisrael Katz, who proposed the motion: so that the members of the central committee will be able to elect the list of Knesset members twice. But at that meeting it was not decided from when the five years would be counted: from the day of the meeting in March of this year, from the day the members of the convention were chosen (September, 2002) or, as the members wanted, from the day the convention is adjourned and it is transformed in the central committee.

The meaning of the third possibility is that this convention in which some of the members of which are known criminals and in which many of the members of which were chosen in fishy ways through election bribery, this same convention that sent forth from within itself the least successful and attractive list of Knesset members the Likud has ever had - will serve until 2009. Now a compromise appears to be on the horizon: There will be a decision on a four-year extension from the day the convention is adjourned. That is, until the end of 2009. This is the Likud's message for the new year.

Although the current convention has fed him bitter fruit, Sharon and his son Omri are not opposed to this extension. As far as the prime minister is concerned, it is better that this bunch of screamers busy itself in the coming months with itself and its labyrinthine plots than with his policy moves. In any case, he doesn't count them, just as they don't count him. He also doesn't need them. The people who need them are the Knesset members. Sharon is hoping that the gift he is giving them for the holiday will smooth their feathers a bit.

One of the Likud government ministers said this week that at the convention meeting about a month ago, when Sharon was defeated by Shalom and Landau, some of the members who intended to vote against Sharon said: "It's not that we care about Gaza. It can go to hell. But did you see how he (Sharon) relates to us? The way he scorns us? We'll show him."

Until not too long ago Sharon's opponents, and the opponents of a unity government, feared that he would make use of his right and railroad the passage of a decision that would allow him to renew the coalition negotiations with the Labor Party. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom even considered cutting short his important mission to the United Nations General Assembly just in order to be here tomorrow.

In the meantime, in recent days there has been an attempt to pull a fast one on Netanyahu the way a fast one was pulled on Sharon; members of the convention, some of whom are identified with Sharon, began to collect signatures on a call to hold an "economic-social debate." This would have forced Netanyahu to get up and explain his policy, which angers many members of the convention. Sharon could have sat on the sidelines and watched Netanyahu squirm, for a change. But as of yesterday at noon, this topic did not appear on the convention agenda.