- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

JERUSALEM — The Likud Party’s governing body met yesterday for the first time since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s defection, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered political movement.

The meeting of the Likud central committee, traditionally marked by shouting, grabbed microphones and upset podiums, was a low-key affair attended by a few hundred of the 3,000 members.

The calm seemed to show how Likud, for 30 years a hawkish force in Israeli politics, has been suddenly marginalized by Mr. Sharon’s exit to create a centrist party. It is now a small bastion of hard-line opponents of peace concessions to the Palestinians, many bitter over the Sharon-sponsored withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

Polls say Mr. Sharon’s new party, which formally adopted the name “Forward” yesterday, is the front-runner for the March 28 parliamentary elections. The rejuvenated Labor Party and its new leader, union boss Amir Peretz, is a strong second, with Likud far behind.

Mr. Sharon upset Israel’s political equilibrium with his move to split Likud, drawing off backers who supported the Gaza pullout and raising the possibility of a centrist coalition government that could move boldly toward peace with the Palestinians.

In a quiet show of hands yesterday evening at a mostly empty convention hall in Tel Aviv, the Likud delegates approved Dec. 19 as the date for a primary election. At least five candidates are vying to succeed Mr. Sharon, who helped found the party in 1973.

The candidates pledged to refrain from personal attacks, but recriminations already have begun. Front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu, a former finance minister, is the easiest target for critics who say his policies widened social gaps and deepened poverty. His main rivals are Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

This week, Mr. Mofaz derided Mr. Netanyahu as having been born with a “silver spoon in his mouth,” making it impossible for him to understand the plight of those from humble beginnings.

Mr. Netanyahu retorted that his rivals supported his economic programs as Cabinet ministers but now are trying to flee responsibility.

Other prominent Likud members defected with Mr. Sharon, notably Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But a main prize eluded Mr. Sharon yesterday when Avishay Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University and a former World Bank economist, chose to ally himself with Mr. Peretz and Labor instead.

Mr. Braverman, 57, said he had joined Labor because of its social agenda — rolling back Mr. Netanyahu’s policy of cutting taxes for the wealthy in the hope that benefits would trickle down.

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