ON one level, the Likud Party's central committee meeting will be a face-off over Israel's election plan for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On another, the planned July 5 event, which will bring together 2,600 members of Israel's dominant political party, will climax a rancorous internal struggle for leadership.
One protagonist will be Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's prime minister. Mr. Shamir is determined to gain his party's solid backing for his peace initiative that would begin with an election in the occupied territories. But political analysts say he will also use the impending showdown on the plan to undermine his chief political rivals, leaving his confidante, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, as his unquestioned heir apparent as leader of the party.
The other main protagonist is Trade and Industry Minister Ariel Sharon. The former defense minister would very much like to be prime minister. To advance that objective, analysts say, he will seek to cripple Shamir in the debate on the election plan or create a break-away coalition of right-wing interests.
Senior aides to the prime minister concede that if the election plan were voted down, Shamir would have difficulty remaining in power. That would open the possibility, considered unlikely, of a new coalition government headed by the Labor Party that would include several religious parties.
``Sharon's aim is not only to thwart the plan,'' says a senior aide to Shamir. ``He wants to topple Shamir and the break up the government.''
``Sharon is not playing games,'' concurs Hirsh Goodman, a political and military analyst. ``He has every intention of trying to split the party, or to gain a constituency within the party. The threat to Shamir is real.''
Political observers offer conflicting explanations for the events leading to next month's crucial party showdown.
One interpretation portrays the prime minister as a shrewd political operator who seized on the election plan as a means of putting the diplomatic ball in the court of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman, while consolidating the political middle in Israel. At the same time it would convince the Bush administration of Jerusalem's serious interest in negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Faced with the challenge from Sharon, the interpretation goes, Shamir has carefully laid a trap that will be sprung at the party plenum, leaving Sharon politically emasculated.
Alternatively, the plan is described as a public relations exercise that backfired on Shamir when the US decided to treat it seriously, and when the PLO, sensing its political possibilities, refused to reject it out of hand.
Stung by the realization that he could now ``be hoist by his own petard,'' one proponent of this interpretation explains, Shamir is frantically backpeddling, while members of his own party are trying to save him from himself - or in the case of Sharon, to destroy him politically.
When the showdown comes, there will be no compromises, says one top aide to Shamir. ``Shamir will say: `Here's my peace plan. It has the backing of the Cabinet and the Knesset. It's good for Israel. It poses no risks. It brings international support. Take it or leave it.'''
But members of opposition camps within the party led by Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, plus some members of the Liberal faction of the Likud Party, will demand changes requiring Shamir to bar outside supervision of the election, ban Arabs living in East Jerusalem from voting, and prohibit voting until the intifadah is halted.
``Unless you bring an end to the intifadah first, any peace process has a pistol at our head. No one can conduct peace negotiations on this basis,'' says Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau, who, like many other Israeli parliamentarians, worries that US support for Israel is wavering.
``As the US is not standing behind us, you want to spell out the safeguards much more clearly,'' Mr. Landau says.
``You can't stop the intifadah completely,'' responds the senior official in the prime minister's office. ``If you wait for that, you'll never have elections.''
Aided by influential younger party members like Justice Minister Dan Meridor and Minister without Portfolio Ehud Olmert, Shamir is likely to carry the day when the party congress finally convenes, most analysts agree. Following the defeat of Labor in recent national and local elections, Likud is riding high. Few Likud members will be eager to create a breach within the party that could jeopardize those gains.
``Too many party members have too many vested interests to allow this government to fail,'' comments a ranking official in the Likud government of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin.