Likud Party leadership first time meets without Sharon

A truncated Likud Party had an uncharacteristically quiet convention to set Dec. 19 as the date for a primary election to replace the departed Ariel Sharon as its leader, facing a potential disaster in the upcoming March 28 election.

The meeting Thursday of the Likud central committee, traditionally sparked by scenes of shouting, grabbing microphones and even upsetting podiums, was a low-key affair attended by only by a few hundred of the 3,000 members.

The calm, decorum and lack of fire symbolized how Likud, for three decades a leading hawkish force in Israeli politics, has been suddenly marginalized by Sharon's exit and creation of a new centrist party leaving Likud as a small bastion of hardline opponents of concessions to the Palestinians for peace, still bitter over Sharon's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

Polls show Sharon's new party, dubbed "Forward," winning the election, with the rejuvenated Labor Party and its new leader, union boss Amir Peretz, finishing a strong second but Likud lagging far behind.

Sharon upset the political equilibrium with his bold move, splitting Likud along with backers who supported the Gaza pullout, raising the possibility of a centrist coalition government after the election that could move boldly toward peace moves with the Palestinians.

In a quiet show of hands Thursday 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 the departed Sharon, who helped found the party in 1973.

The candidates pledged Thursday to refrain from personal attacks, but it may already be too late for that, as the recriminations have already begun. Front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu, the ex-finance minister, is the easiest target because of policies his critics say widened social gaps and deepened poverty. His main rivals are Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

This week Mofaz derided Netanyahu as born with a "silver spoon in his mouth," making it impossible for him to understand the plight of those from humble beginnings like Mofaz. Netanyahu retorted that all his rivals, as Cabinet ministers, supported his economic programs, but now they are trying to run away from responsibility.

Other prominent Likud members defected with Sharon, notably Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, but a main prize eluded Sharon on Thursday when Avishay Braverman, president of Ben Gurion University and a former World Bank economist, chose to ally himself with Peretz and Labor instead.

In a telephone interview, Braverman, 57, said he joined Labor because of its social agenda rolling back Netanyahu's policy of tax breaks for the wealthy with the hope that the benefits would trickle down. Peretz believes in a free market balanced with proper levels of welfare for the poor, Braverman said.

Peretz has been emphasizing domestic policies over Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, the traditional election decider in Israel. Braverman said a mix is essential. Progress toward peace "is a must for foreign investment and economic growth. You cannot separate foreign policy, economic policy and social policy," reported AP. P.T.

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