- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

TEL AVIV — The long-ruling Likud Party, marginalized by the defection of Ariel Sharon and other stalwarts to form a new centrist party, hopes to redefine itself for March elections by introducing a new peace plan, insiders say.

The goal would be to counter the party’s post-Sharon image as a bastion of hard-liners unable to accept the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and unwilling to make the compromises necessary to end decades of conflict with the Palestinians.

Likud has led Israel for 21 of the past 30 years but is running third behind the party called Kadima formed by Mr. Sharon last year and its longtime rival, the Labor Party. Recent polls show that, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud would win as few as 15 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, down from the 40 in the outgoing parliament.

“The burden of proof is on Likud and Netanyahu to demonstrate that they have a plan for Israelis to have a peaceful future,” said a source familiar with Likud’s campaign plans. “A plan will come sooner rather than later.”

The party will target moderate voters by reminding them of Likud’s record of peacemaking, including agreements signed by Mr. Netanyahu when he was prime minister to implement the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians.

At present, voters are more likely to think of Mr. Netanyahu as the hard-liner who resigned from the Cabinet to protest the Gaza withdrawal.

Likud also has been beset by internal discord since Mr. Sharon’s resignation in November and his subsequent grave illness. The party’s four Cabinet members resigned their posts Sunday to set the stage for the elections, but only after initially resisting instructions to do so from Mr. Netanyahu.

The party also is rife with rumors that Sharon sympathizers have remained in Likud to sabotage its campaign.

“Some people in the Likud do not seem interested that Netanyahu will win,” said Yuval Steinitz, a Likud lawmaker who heads parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee. “Netanyahu should put the Likud in order and put the ministers in line. It will be difficult to close the gap” with Kadima, he said.

A party primary held last week to rank Likud candidates for parliament provided further evidence of internal dissatisfaction. Several junior lawmakers were placed ahead of the party’s outgoing Cabinet ministers, making them more likely to win seats.

Mr. Steinitz said that half of the top 10 primary finishers had supported Mr. Sharon on the Gaza pullout. But political analysts have described the parliamentary slate as dominated by opponents of the withdrawal.

“The good news from the primary is that it’s very clear what the Likud stands for. The bad news is that the Likud stands for something well to the right of the public, and there’s no indication that they’re going to move to the center,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.

Most analysts expect Likud to try to disassociate itself from Israel’s religiously driven right, which opposes any partition of the biblical Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu has said he is willing to make concessions to the Palestinians as long as Israel can expect a quid pro quo response.

Likud will attack Mr. Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank in September as damaging for Israel’s security — an argument that could become more potent if militants continue to fire crude rockets from Gaza at the southern city of Ashkelon.

Likud also will seek to undercut the public perception of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as the heir to Mr. Sharon’s legacy, said the insider.

But experts said the party will find it hard to shake its image as being dominated by hard-liners — nicknamed “the rebels” — who tried to block Mr. Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza.

“Rebels is a strong word in Hebrew, psychologically speaking. It’s almost a traitor,” said Gideon Doron, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University.

“Sharon is considered the rock, the dependable person. He symbolized the interest of Israel, and those people were against him.”

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