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Likud Leaders Meet for First Time Without Sharon

The Likud Party's governing body met Thursday for the first time since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon 's defection, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered political movement.

The meeting of the Likud central committee, traditionally marked by shouting, grabbed microphones and upset podiums, was a low-key affair attended by only a few hundred of the 3,000 members.

The calm showed how Likud, for 30 years a hawkish force in Israeli politics, has been suddenly marginalized by Sharon's exit to create a centrist party. It is now a small bastion of hardline opponents of peace concessions to the Palestinians, many bitter over Sharon's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

Polls say Sharon's new party, Forward, is the front-runner for the March 28 parliamentary elections. The rejuvenated Labor Party and its new leader, union boss Amir Peretz, is a strong second, with Likud lagging far behind.

Sharon upset Israel's political equilibrium with his bold move to split Likud, drawing off backers who supported the Gaza pullout and raising the possibility of a centrist coalition government that could move boldly toward peace with the Palestinians.

In a quiet show of hands Thursday evening at a mostly empty convention hall in Tel Aviv, the Likud delegates approved Dec. 19 as the date for a primary election. At least five candidates are vying to succeed Sharon, who helped found the party in 1973.

The candidates pledged Thursday to refrain from personal attacks but recriminations have already begun. Front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu, a former finance minister, is the easiest target for critics who say his policies widened social gaps and deepened poverty. His main rivals are Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

This week Mofaz derided Netanyahu as born with a "silver spoon in his mouth," making it impossible for him to understand the plight of those from humble beginnings — like Mofaz. Netanyahu retorted that his rivals supported his economic programs as Cabinet ministers but now are trying to flee responsibility.

Other prominent Likud members defected with Sharon, notably Vice Premier Ehud Olmert. But a main prize eluded Sharon on Thursday when Avishay Braverman, president of Ben Gurion University and a former World Bank economist, chose to ally himself with Peretz and Labor instead.

In a telephone interview, Braverman, 57, said he joined Labor because of its social agenda — rolling back Netanyahu's policy of cutting taxes for the wealthy in the hope that benefits would trickle down. Peretz believes in a free market balanced with proper levels of welfare for the poor, said Braverman, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University.

"I never believed in policies that lead to extreme inequality," he said. "Israel, given the level of decline in education, the prime cause of poverty, requires a new path."

Peretz has been emphasizing domestic policies over Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the traditional election decider in Israel.