Bibi: "Are We Likud, or Meretz?"

Netanyahu will likely succeed in advancing Likud primaries. PM Sharon will then likely quit and form a new party. "It's nothing personal," Bibi says, "but rather whether we are Likud or Meretz."

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Hillel Fendel, | updated: 11:07

The date of the upcoming primaries is the main question mark in the Likud at present. MK Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, MK Uzi Landau and Manhigut Yehudit leader Moshe Feiglin have all announced their intentions to challenge Sharon for the party leadership in those primaries.

Landau and Netanyahu want to move up the primaries date from next April to this coming November. Sharon, on the other hand, has no interest in being challenged earlier than necessary. The 3,000-member Likud Central Committee is set to vote on when to hold the primaries early next week.

Prime Minister Sharon has all but admitted - some say he has threatened - that he plans to quit the party if he does not win the leadership race. Many leading MKs have said that this is an unacceptable threat. Deputy Agriculture Minister Gila Gamliel, for instance, met with Netanyahu yesterday and said afterwards that she supports advancing the primaries because "Sharon has not committed himself to remain in the Likud and honor the party's decisions."

If, as seems likely, Netanyahu wins and Sharon then quits the Likud and forms a new party, the question becomes: Who will Likud voters then vote for? Political analyst Ben Caspit has raised the possibility that Netanyahu might find himself heading a new right-wing party that, like other right-wing parties in the past and present, will receive only a marginal number of Knesset mandates.

Netanyahu, however, is not asking that question - at least not publicly. At a gathering of supporters in Kiryat Malachi last night, Netanyahu had some other questions: "People are asking themselves today whether there is still such a thing as the Likud. This coming Monday, we will have to ask ourselves one simple question: Are we Likud, or [left-wing] Meretz - because in the past few months we have been implementing the policies of Meretz."

The gathering took place at the home of the mayor of Kiryat Malachi, Moti Malka.

Netanyahu related that at a recent session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Sharon was explaining his decision to relinquish control of the Philadelphi Route to Egypt - "and who came to his defense? None other than Shimon Peres and the MKs of Meretz!"

MK Yuval Shteinitz, a long-time Netanyahu supporter, took part, and said, "What is happening in our party has never happened before in the Likud or in any other party in Israel. The party leader is pointing a gun at our head and saying, either you vote my way or else I burn the clubhouse down. He's threatening us; this is political blackmail."

Shteinitz also had harsh words for the media: "In any other place, the Prime Minister would have been taken to task by the media. I expect the Israeli press to wake up and note his bullying tactics."

Polls taken throughout the last two weeks have shown varying results, with a narrow lead for the Netanyahu-Landau position demanding that the primaries date be advanced. The latest survey, published today in Haaretz, shows 45.5% in favor of moving up the primaries to this November, and 40.3% backing the Sharon plan to leave the date as is, next April.

MK Gideon Saar, who has often sat on the fence in competitions between Sharon and Netanyahu - he served as Cabinet Secretary under both of them - has come out squarely in favor of Netanyahu. He said today that he refuses to be threatened by Sharon, and that the Prime Minister must commit himself to remain in the party even if he loses the upcoming vote.

Unsurprisingly, Sharon himself shows no sign of giving in. "I have heard that there is now a demand for nothing less than a promise from me for all sorts of things if the attempts to depose me succeed," Sharon said. "There seems to be no limit to the chutzpah. The Central Committee vote on Sunday is an attempt to depose me, and those who are leading it are yet coming with demands? I ask: Have you deposed and also demanded? [a play on words for the Biblical, 'Have you murdered and also inherited?']"