Israeli right: purists vs. pragmatists

The Palestinian question divides those remaining in the Likud party following Prime Minister Sharon's exit.

Israel's premier right-wing party for more than three decades took its name from three parties that merged to form it, spelling the acronym Likud - a word in Hebrew that connotes unity and consolidation.

But following the dramatic decision earlier this week by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to leave the party and start a new centrist one, the Likud is fast scattering into smaller pieces that do not constitute a whole.

The break separating right from right, Mr. Sharon's chief strategist says, is the result of what might be summarized as an inevitable split between pragmatists and purists. While the purists are holding fast to their dreams of having a "Greater Israel" that includes the West Bank and Gaza, the pragmatists - many of whom are joining Sharon - have come to view a Palestinian state in those territories as an inescapable conclusion.

Unless it can resolve this divide within its own ranks, Likud will have a much harder time capturing the Israeli vote when the country goes to the polls next spring. While Sharon has already attracted prominent centrists from both the left and the right, some of Likud's pragmatists have stayed put, leaving the party's leadership and future course up for grabs.

"It's very clear that the party cannot have two souls," says Eyal Arad, president and founder of Arad communications, which will play a key role in Sharon's election campaign. "Therefore, a split, in my view, in the long run, was basically unavoidable."

Sharon caused rethink on the right

The acceptance of the international peace process known as the road map was "a conceptual revolution," says Mr. Arad, who, in showing up with an almost-shaved head and casual blue-and-white striped sweater to a press conference with foreign journalists this week, seemed to cut the figure of an Israeli James Carville.

"We had a dream that Jews could live everywhere in the 'Greater Land of Israel,' " says Arad. "I believe it was a good dream ... but it crushed against the walls of reality.... It was the leadership of Ariel Sharon, and the expertise on security matters that he carries ... that allowed right-wingers like myself to accept that reality and to accept the vision of two states, living side by side, without terrorism."

Polls indicate that most Israelis have also accepted that position, leaving some analysts to argue that Likud's best chances lie with a move toward the center.

"Even in the last election, in 2003, it was more a victory of the center," says Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, near the capital Tel Aviv. For that reason, Sharon's right-wing competitors whom he left behind in the Likud are now mostly attacking him less on policy than on "credibility issues."

Netanyahu, others vie to lead Likud

Several powerful figures in the Likud have already announced their plans to run for the leadership of the party in upcoming primaries, allowing them to take on Sharon on March 28. These include former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Shaul Mofaz, a popular former army chief and defense minister.

Mr. Netanyahu has taken to calling Sharon a "dictator" who doesn't understand democracy, as well as a member of a "crime family," a shot at the recent conviction of one of Sharon's sons, Omri, on charges of illegal political fundraising.

Further to the right along the Likud spectrum is Uzi Landau, who has an active following with settlers angry over Sharon's withdrawal this August from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank.

Mr. Landau promises to portray Sharon - who famously said that a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip was as important to him as Tel Aviv - as a man who says one thing and does another.

Also throwing his hat in the ring is foreign minister Silvan Shalom. Mr. Shalom, who has been rejuvenating ties with moderate Arab states in the afterglow of the disengagement plan, declared his candidacy on Tuesday saying, "Only I can stop the collapse of the Likud."

One of the former military leaders who could shake Sharon on his own turf is Mr. Mofaz, who was a popular chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and is now serving as defense minister. After Sharon's decision to get out, Mofaz announced that he will seek the Likud party leadership.

Mofaz, who is Iranian-born and Israeli-bred, also presents a formidable challenge to the new Labor Party leader, Amir Peretz, a native Moroccan who is predicted to have appeal among the Sephardim - the more than half of the Israeli public whose families hail from Spain and countries throughout the Muslim world.

Yet another ethnic card being played is the Russian one. Israel's foremost politician from the former Soviet Union, Avigdor Lieberman, is a hawk whose right-wing party makes an attractive coalition candidate. He may draw away conservative votes that might otherwise go to Likud or to Sharon's new party, called

The far right to harden its positions

Israel's far right, meanwhile, can expect to harden in its core beliefs, but will likely become increasingly marginalized.

Amid the political sand-shifting, two right-wing parties - the National Union and the National Religious Party - discussed merging to form a more solidly ideological group with Orthodox values, one that would distinguish itself from the Likud, which is primarily a secular party.

"For those who don't trust Likud because of disengagement, a party merger like this could win a lot of people," says Professor Sandler. But longtime supporters may feel that they have to come to the rescue of the ailing Likud, and so the splintering party could still win back voters.

"What we see is that as elections come closer, people start returning to their original homes. Likud is still a brand name - it's too early to write it off," says Sandler.

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