Sharon clinches surprise Likud win
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won yesterday's Likud Central Committee vote on whether to hold an early Likud party primary by a slim 104-vote margin.
Sharon's victory - by a majority of 1,433 to 1,329 - over his rival MK Benjamin Netanyahu, who pushed for the proposal to hold the primary in 60 days, puts a freeze on the struggle within the Likud until April, when the primaries are scheduled under the party constitution. Turnout was as high as 91 percent, or 2,762 central committee members out of the listed 3,050 heeded Sharon's call by coming to cast their ballot.
The victory places Sharon in an even greater dilemma, according to some commentators, than if he had lost. In fact, Sharon is getting extra time to decide on his political future - competing in the Likud or setting up a new political body to fight in the next elections.
Sharon's men said yesterday that he would demand of Netanyahu, as the leader of the rebellion against him, to end the "uprising" and undertake to work as part of the coalition.
Sharon confidants said he intends to bring the state budget for a first Knesset reading after the October recess. Therefore, he will issue an unequivocal demand "that Bibi and the bunch of mavericks he leads commit themselves to respect the results of tonight's vote and support the coalition unconditionally," they said.
Likud faction chair MK Gideon Sa'ar, who recently joined Sharon's opponents in demanding an early primary, will have to "shape up and enforce the party line," Sharon's aides said. They said however that "no heads will roll" and that Sharon would not take revenge on ministers who had turned against him.
Sources close to the prime minister said he sees the vote results as a show of confidence in his way as he presented it, and that he intends to continue to implement the Middle East road map peace plan as he has promised.
At the end of the evening, after a vain attempt to put a telephone call through from Sharon to his activists, MK Ruhama Avraham climbed on the stage at the Tel Aviv Fair Grounds and said in his name:
"Apparently there has been another technical hitch. He wants to thank all of you. He loves you. Today, we all told him that we want him to remain our prime minister."
Minutes earlier, Netanyahu conceded defeat: "I respect the democratic decision of the Likud. The decision also requires a clear commitment on the part of everyone that they will contend in the primary. [Membership in] the Likud is not a condition thing."
Netanyahu said that Sharon cannot ignore the strong opposition against him within the party.
Netanyahu also said that the vote was a setback for his campaign to oust Sharon. He said he was still committed to running in next spring's primary. "We lost by a very few votes. There is a very large camp that went against the flow, against the wind, against the pressure, against the leadership and against the temptations," he said.