Could Uzi Landau Shape up as the Likud’s Dark Horse?

Even before he set out for home Monday, Sept. 19, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon charged into combative mode against his political adversaries, using a New York meeting with Jewish leaders as his platform. He declared he had lost the majority of the party he founded because of the “lies and terrible incitement of a minority which opposed the Gaza evacuations.” It was unheard of for a ruling party, Sharon said, to relinquish power a year and a quarter before the end of its term solely in order to satisfy someone’s “crazy personal ambitions” (a transparent reference to former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu who now contests him).
The prime minister’s aides denied widespread reports that he planned to quit Likud and found a new centrist party with veteran Labor leader Shimon Peres. Sharon, they said, would continue to defend himself against challenges from inside the party.
debkafile‘s political analysts find significant points in the prime minister’s remarks:
1. For the first time he admits the loss of his party majority, an occurrence that dates back to April 2004, when 62% of Likud members voted against his disengagement-evacuation plan. Sharon simply dumped the Likud and other ministers opposed to his plan and went outside the party for political partners to get it off the ground. He is now attempting the impossible: to keep his policies afloat while winning back a party which is dead against them.
2. His “crazy personal ambitions” allegation may perhaps stick to Netanyahu who makes no bones about his drive to regain the premiership. But Uzi Landau, a diehard of old Herut, a stern idealist and antithesis of the flamboyant Netanyahu, hardly radiates ambition or divisiveness.
The heating up of the race between Sharon and Netanyahu may even help Landau run off with the party chairmanship and prime ministerial candidacy in the Likud primaries. Aware of his potential strength, Netanyahu approached him Sunday Sept. 18, and proposed an alliance for the critical central committee meeting next Monday, Sept. 26, to have the primaries brought forward to November. The two signed the letter to the committee members. Clearly, Netanyahu is no longer sure of being able to beat Sharon on his own.
Landau thus emerges as a potential dark horse, in some ways a parallel to Levi Eshkol, Israel’s compromise prime minister of the sixties who, by virtue of his lack of charisma and quiet strength, kept Labor in power and helped it weather the bitter controversy against its founder, David Ben Gurion.
3. Aware that an early primary means an early general election, Sharon is also preparing his strategy in case he loses the battle to hold on to the Likud leadership. Encumbered as he is with anti-Likud policies, he needs a way out. This explains why the Likud prime minister and Labor leader Shimon Peres appear to be circling ever closer to setting up a joint left-of-center political bloc. This they cannot admit without being accused prematurely of splitting their respective parties.
Sharon’s primary rationale for striking out transcends his low rating in Likud: most polls indicate that 40% of the general public in Israel’s central heartland of Greater Tel Aviv would vote for a new party or bloc with Sharon at its head. His exit path is clear – his party’s rejection, but Peres would need to invent a gambit to carry Labor into a new party structure.
The way things are going now, therefore, 31 years after he amalgamated five conservative parties to create Likud, Sharon is again engaged in party-building – this time at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
This eventuality may also enhance Landau’s prospects. Unlike Sharon, Peres, or most other claimants to the top job, Landau has two assets: he has never compromised on his opposition to the Sharon-Peres evacuation policy, which is now proving to have been based on unrealistic expectations of the Palestinians. Second, he is the quintessential Mr. Clean, a rare asset that may attract the general voter even more than his being vindicated in his dire prophecies of a breakdown in national security.

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