Ministers from Israel’s right wing Likud party have refused leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that they quit the cabinet. Netanyahu’s order came on the eve of today’s Likud primaries to choose candidates for parliamentary elections in March.
His failure to bring ministers to heel could further undermine his leadership, to the benefit of rival Silvan Shalom. The Foreign Minister lost out to Netanyahu in a bid for the Likud leadership last month.
Shalom’s less hawkish stance is seen as more in tune with Israeli public opinion, which followed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he broke away from Likud last year to form the centrist Kadima party.
The potential crisis within Likud comes as uncertainty grows over who will fill the political void left by Sharon, who remains critically ill after suffering a massive stroke last week.
Sharon’s deputy Ehud Olmert has temporarily assumed power. Polls show that he could lead Kadima to take 45 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament – the party’s strongest showing in opinion polls so far.
Meanwhile a vigil continues outside the hospital where Sharon is being treated.But with doctors admitting his recovery could take months, the media spotlight is increasingly turning towards the March elections.