Sharon and Netanyahu Face Off In Likud Party Primaries

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is likely to beat Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Likud party primaries, an Israeli expert said.
That's because party members believe he can draw more floating votes from the center and give his party more mandates in the Knesset.

Sharon and Netanyahu face off in party primaries on Thursday. Some 305,000 Likud members are eligible to vote in the primaries, which they will do at more than 670 polling stations around the country. A high turnout is expected.

According to the results of opinion polls published in Hebrew newspapers on Wednesday, Sharon is leading Netanyahu by at least 20 percent.

The Likud party is expected to win the country's general elections scheduled for January 28, 2003 and its leader would likely be the next prime minister.

Dr. Asher Cohen from the political science department of Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv said there are big differences between Sharon and Netanyahu. Sharon's appeal, he said, comes from both the sense that his stand is more toward the center of his right of center party than Netanyahu.

"Sharon is closer to the center," Cohen said in a telephone interview.

Even before the primaries, Sharon has said that under the right conditions he would be willing to accept the creation of a Palestinian state and he is willing to negotiate with the Palestinians provided they meet his requirements, Cohen said.

Netanyahu, a former prime minister, is much more hawkish. He is not promising the Palestinians a state and he has long advocated the expulsion of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Although Netanyahu espouses a stand that is much closer to that which many Likud party members advocate, they are still more likely to elect Sharon because he can draw the center votes away from the Labor party, Cohen said.

"Whoever takes the voters of the center, he'll win," Cohen said. "Sharon will bring more [Knesset] mandates to the Likud [giving them more power]."

Another advantage that Sharon has over Netanyahu is that he speaks about forming a national unity government and has already done it during his current term as prime minister, said Cohen.

Sharon was forced to call for early elections several weeks ago after then Labor Party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer quit the government over a politically-motivated budgetary dispute. Ben-Eliezer subsequently lost the race for the Labor party leadership to Amram Mitzna.

The public likes the idea of a national unity government, Cohen said. Sharon's age - 74 - is a marginal issue as is Netanyahu's charisma, he added.

The public also feels more secure with someone like Sharon, who even though he may not be able to solve the country's problems, he has more experience, he said.
"Netanyahu has very good English and is good at explaining Israel's situation," Cohen said. That makes him a good foreign minister.

"Now that Sharon has placed him as foreign minister, why do we have to change? With Sharon as prime minister, Netanyahu as foreign minister and [Shaul] Mofaz as defense minister, it's a very good team," Cohen said of the way public views the current situation.

Earlier this week, both Sharon and Netanyahu said they would offer each other the post of foreign minister when he wins the general election. Sharon has already said that he would appoint Mofaz, former chief of staff until last summer, the post of defense minister.