Convention Chaos Leaves Israel's Right in Disarray

Times Staff Writer

The Israeli political right was left in a state of shock and disarray here Thursday after a chaotic convention of the Likud Bloc's dominant Herut faction collapsed in a three-way power struggle.

Acting party leader and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, trembling with anger, had to be escorted out of the convention hall early Thursday after delegates shouted him down and fistfights broke out among his supporters and those of his rivals, Ariel Sharon and David Levy.

Sharon, a former defense minister and architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, serves as industry minister in the current national unity government and Levy is deputy premier and housing minister.

Shamir later bitterly called Levy a "megalomaniac" and described the convention as a "circus."

"The whole thing collapsed, and it collapsed in front of three million people," said Nahum Barnea, editor of the political weekly Koteret Rashit, of the nationally televised convention.

The unexpected fracas left in question the future of the unusual, 18-month-old coalition government, which joins Likud and the other major Israeli political bloc, the Labor Alignment of Prime Minister Shimon Peres. It also raised new doubts over the rotation of top jobs between Peres and Shamir, who is scheduled to become prime minister in October under the coalition agreement.

Pro-Labor Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avinieri described the new political situation as "an unguided missile."

Struggle a Break for Peres

Likud officials agreed that the open power struggle provides new opportunities for Peres to break the coalition in hopes of retaining the prime minister's post in new elections.

"Labor has a golden opportunity," conceded Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, a Herut member of the Knesset (Parliament). Ben-Elissar described the mood among his colleagues Thursday as "very much down."

Peres, however, refused to comment directly on the rival party's problems.

Analysts from both sides of the political fence cautioned that the situation is likely to remain too fluid to predict for the next few weeks. Several noted that the Herut leadership may still be able to patch up its differences and reassemble the convention.

"They have two choices--they can make up or they can split," said Zeev Chafets, a former Likud government spokesman.

Permanent Fracture Possible

But Ben-Elissar dismissed suggestions that there could be a permanent fracture.

"You can exclude it completely," he said. "This is really committing suicide."

Sharon insisted in a radio interview that he and Levy "had no such intention" of splitting the party. "It will take a few days and people will come back together," he predicted.

The Herut convention, the faction's first since founder Menachem Begin suddenly resigned as prime minister in 1983, began last Sunday in a colorful, if misleading, show of patriotism and good cheer. About 2,000 delegates sang and applauded loudly whenever Begin's name was mentioned.

Begin Missing First Time

Begin, who has remained in seclusion since his resignation, nonetheless remains titular head of Herut, and it was the first time since he formed the party in 1949 that he took no direct part in its convention. Instead, he sent a message endorsing acting party leader Shamir as his successor.

As quickly became clear, however, Sharon and Levy had formed a temporary alliance to prevent Shamir from having a free hand. While both men said they did not want to depose the 70-year-old Shamir before the scheduled rotation, they demanded a bigger share of power with an eye toward the next contest for the party leadership.

Each convention vote quickly became a test of strength, and by Monday night tempers boiled over. A Levy loyalist leaped onstage at one point, ripped a microphone from the hands of a Shamir supporter and knocked down both the speaker and the podium.

Begin's Son Defeated

The Shamir camp won the first contest when its candidate was narrowly elected as chairman of the convention presidium. But the next night, Sharon beat Binyamin Begin, son of the party founder, for a key post controlling the selection of convention delegates.

A third key contest between Levy and Shamir ally Moshe Arens, which would have determined control of the all-important party central committee, was never held as the convention degenerated into chaos Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.

One leading Herut official quoted a colleague Thursday as saying that after the televised spectacle, "I was ashamed to go to my office today."

Likud and Labor supporters alike said the images of fistfights and official name-calling will harm Herut, although there was some question of how lasting the damage will be.

'It Was a Madhouse'

"It was a very, very bad performance," said Chafets. "It was a madhouse, and I think it did a lot of damage."

"If there were an election held today, Labor would do very well," added Daniel Elazar, director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He noted, however, that it takes several months to organize new elections, and the negative effect on Herut may well "wear off" by then.

Israeli political analysts agreed that the leadership split had its origins in the unusual nature and history of Herut.

The party joins two major groups. One group includes what Elazar called the "leftovers of the pre-state underground and their children," people such as Begin and Shamir. The larger group is made up of Sephardic Jews, with their roots in Arab and African countries, who see themselves as having been treated as an underclass by the Labor Zionists represented by Peres' party.

While sharing many rightist views on foreign affairs and the security of the state, these groups are very dissimilar. Only the powerful, populist figure of Begin kept them together.

No One to Replace Begin

Now Begin is gone, and no one has yet emerged to replace him.

The man who appears to have the best chance of ultimately doing that, Sharon, is the one who may have gained the most from the convention. "There is no doubt that this convention improved the chances of Sharon to become the leader of Herut," said Barnea.

While Levy has a larger following at the moment, the editor said, Sharon "is the only one in Herut who can become, in the eyes of Herut supporters, the real imitation of Begin. David Levy can make speeches like Begin, but he doesn't represent the kind of experience and confidence in security and foreign affairs which Sharon (a retired general and former war hero) represents."

In some ways, said Chafets, the biggest loser at the convention was Begin. The party ignored its founder's wishes by failing to endorse Shamir, and then it voted against Begin's son.

"The party just didn't do what Begin told it to do for the first time," Chafets said. "The notion he can say what he wants and get it is buried."

Shamir a Casualty

Shamir is obviously a casualty, too. Even if Herut patches things up, his image has been badly damaged.

"Shamir has a tough problem because he is about to take over the government of a nation that is in trouble when he may lack the legitimacy of his own party," said the Labor Alignment secretary general, Uzi Baram. "I see elections on the horizon."

Chafets called Shamir "the Ferdinand Marcos of Likud," with the only question now being how long he will be able to hold on to his party position.

Another loser appeared to be Arens, a former defense minister and ambassador to Washington who is seen as Shamir's chosen successor. Political analysts here contend that Arens, who has no real constituency of his own, must rely on Shamir to pave the way before he can hope to lead the party.

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