A conference of the Likud party’s 3000 member Central Committee got underway this Sunday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Exposition Grounds, as party activists get set for Monday’s historic vote on whether to hold early primary elections.

The issue of whether to hold early primaries is serving as the backdrop for a bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his former Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu pulled out of Sharon’s cabinet last month, ostensibly in protest over Sharon’s decision to carry out his plan to withdrawal all Israeli forces from Gaza and northern Samaria and destroy 25 Jewish communities in those areas.

But Netanyahu’s critics contend that the former finance minister, who supported the disengagement process up until the final cabinet vote on implementation, is using his sudden resignation as a springboard to mount a personal challenge against the prime minister.

Netanyahu vehemently denies such charges and claims that his resignation was ideologically based. Netanyahu says that Sharon has strayed from the party’s core values, which were originally based on Israel’s right to maintain perpetual control of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and settle those territories with Jews.

The two camps are set to battle for the votes of party stalwarts in Monday’s ballot. Netanyahu’s supporters, which include Education Minister Limor Livnat, are in favor of early primaries, to be held sometime in November. They believe that early elections would put Netanyahu in a favorable position to defeat Sharon as party leader.

Sharon’s supporters on the other hand, favor later primaries, hoping that Netanyahu’s post-disengagement momentum would peter out before the primaries take place.

The race is wrought with numerous ironies and inconsistencies. As the convention opened Sunday afternoon, Sharon’s supporters shouted “Arik king of Israel,” at Netanyahu’s people. (“Arik” is nickname used by Sharon’s most enthusiastic supporters). For years, that expression was voiced by voters who generally supported Sharon’s hawkish positions on settling the land and fighting Israel’s Arab enemies.

In the meanwhile, 20 young people from the dovish Labor party, Sharon’s chief, coalition partner, demonstrated outside the convention pavilion against what they called “corruption in the Likud.” They carried signs saying the nation was sick of Likud corruption.

Inside the convention hall, the first speaker, a Netanyahu supporter, echoed the calls of Sharon’s left-wing Labor critics, saying the prime minister won election due to the criminal acts of his son, Omri.

The speaker also broadly touched base with Likud ideology, claiming that the primaries vote would be a watershed for “the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the Likud.”

But the issues of which candidate is best for the Likud, or which one remains truer to Likud ideology are not that easily resolved.

Though the Likud has its roots in the more nationalistic breakaway Zionist party led by Zeev Jabotinsky in the 1930’s, and later by Menahem Begin, leader of the Irgun (Etzel) underground and prime minister from 1977-1982, Sharon formed the bloc of right of center parties that formed the modern-day Likud.

That bloc, founded in the early 1970’s has been credited with bringing the Likud to its first electoral victory when Begin was elected prime minister in 1977, after spending almost 30 years in virtually perpetual opposition to Labor led governments.

In 2003, Sharon, as head of the party, swept the Likud to power in an election that brought the party one-third of the Knesset’s 120 seats, a landslide by Israeli standards.

By contrast, Netanyahu, a controversial personality, entered office in 1996 after attaining a microscopic victory over Labor party rival Shimon Peres. After just three years in office, Netanyahu lost out to Labor’s Ehud Barak by a wide margin, in early elections that were held in 1999.

On the issue of remaining faithful to the land of Israel, the record is also ripe for debate between the two factions. Despite his stated opposition to the Oslo accords, Netanyahu, as prime minister, continued their implementation, withdrawing IDF troops from parts of Hevron and extending the PA’s territorial control over wide swaths of territory in Judea and Samaria. Netanyahu negotiated with Palestinian Authority/PLO chief Yassir Arafat at Wye Plantation, as Sharon (then Netanyahu’s foreign minister), refused to shake the terrorist’s hand during the conference.

At the time, Sharon claimed that Netanyahu’s concessions to the PLO endangered Israel’s security in much the same way that Netanyahu has criticized Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon, however, remained in Netanyahu’s government, taking control of the Likud after Netanyahu’s loss to Barak.

Until his Disengagement Plan that uprooted 25 Jewish communities in Gaza and northern Samaria, Sharon was the Likud party’s strongest proponent of settling Jews in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. Under many assessments, even by settlement leaders, most of the Jewish communities in those areas might never have been built or populated, but for the efforts of Sharon serving as minister in various capacities under Likud or Likud-led unity governments.

On the other hand, perhaps no single act has been so destructive to the cause of maintaining Israeli control over Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, as the Disengagement Plan. Concurrently, no other government action has so singularly divided the Israeli public into virtual warring camps, as the implementation of that plan.

The Central Committee vote is scheduled to take place Monday morning at 10:00.

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