Likud Central C´tee Paves Labor´s Way Into Gov´t

The internal Likud Party polls have closed, and the Central Committee has voted in favor of the Prime Minister's proposal to begin coalition negotiations with the Labor Party, UTJ and Shas.

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, | updated: 10:59

Following reports of blatant voter fraud and foul play, some 62% of the 2,271 Central Committee members who voted favored forming a government with the Labor Party.

MK Omri Sharon said he was glad the Central Committee "voted correctly," and said negotiations would begin immediately to bring Labor, Shas and United Torah Judaism into the government. Shas chairman Eli Yishai, however, has nixed the possibility of his party joining the Sharon government.

Sharon's proposal stated that negotiations with the Labor, United Torah Judaism and Shas parties be initiated at once, "with the purpose of bringing [these parties] into the coalition." Currently, the government enjoys the support of only one-third of the Knesset – the Likud Knesset faction alone.

As is well-known, the inclusion of Labor in the government is almost certain to guarantee the passage of Sharon's disengagement plan. According to this plan, Israel will withdraw its forces from Gaza and parts of the northern Shomron, but not before expelling the 8,500 residents of 25 Jewish communities in these areas, destroying their homes, and abandoning the land to the Arabs.

The plan's opponents within the Likud therefore proposed their own resolution to be voted on today. Their resolution stated that negotiations should begin only with political parties that side with the Likud's original platform in the last election – namely, opposition to the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza proposed then by the Labor Party. A Likud-National Union-UTJ-NRP-Shas coalition would number at least 68 MKs.

The Likud Court, however, rejected their request this morning, and only Sharon's resolution was voted upon. The Court also ruled that although democratic procedure generally necessitates debate before votes, in this case it is not necessary.

Sharon and his allies – mainly his son MK Omri Sharon, Ministers Sha'ul Mofaz and Ehud Olmert, and others – hoped for a high voter turnout today, to offset the strength of the party's Manhigut Yehudit faction. By mid-afternoon, they were not very pleased, as only a quarter of the eligible voters had shown up. PM Sharon and his son, MK Omri Sharon, both implored members of the Central Committee to come out and vote. By the end of the day more than 75% had voted.

Likud MK Uzi Landau, head of the opponents' camp, responded with anger to today's court ruling: "This is an unfair grab by the Sharon camp… We are not the 'rebels,' as we are being called; there's only one rebel" – a clear reference to Ariel Sharon himself. Sharon fired Landau from the Cabinet several weeks ago because of his role against the disengagement.

MK Ehud Yatom, a former General Security Service bigwig who also opposes the disengagement plan, made a last-minute effort to convince his party not to accept Sharon's plan by saying, "What is the sense in bringing in Labor just so that we can implement the plan that it promoted, when we know that immediately afterwards it will quit the government and topple us, bragging that we implemented Labor's policies?"

Landau said that today's vote is "just another of the non-democratic steps that the Likud has been taking over the past several years... Prime Minister Sharon threatens to fire the ministers who don't agree with him, and therefore they all line up behind him."

Prime Minister Sharon said today, "The government approved the disengagement, and it’s time to put this thing behind us already." In fact, however, the government only approved the disengagement "in principle;" it was made clear at the time – five months ago – that the actual implementation of the plan will have to be voted on yet again.

Internal party votes are often accompanied by accusations of unfair play and abuses, and today's was no exception. Several voters admitted in front of cameras that they had voted more than once - one man said he voted four times - as a way of pointing out the "irregularities" in the party elections. "It's unbelievable how things work here," one said, and another added, "Why should the [Sharon] camp always get away with it and not us, for a change?"

Likud MK Michael Ratzon (pictured above), who was also fired as Deputy Minister for his objections to the transfer plan, said from the outset that the cards were stacked against anti-disengagement camp within the Likud: "It appears that we have used up all the democratic tools at our disposal, and the struggle against the abandonment of the Land of Israel will have to be waged on the ground, by the people."