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Likud Party to Debate Election Plan

Should peace initiative be voted down, prime minister would have difficulty staying in power. SHOWDOWN FOR SHAMIR

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ON one level, the Likud Party's central committee meeting will be a face-off over Israel's election plan for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On another, the planned July 5 event, which will bring together 2,600 members of Israel's dominant political party, will climax a rancorous internal struggle for leadership.

One protagonist will be Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's prime minister. Mr. Shamir is determined to gain his party's solid backing for his peace initiative that would begin with an election in the occupied territories. But political analysts say he will also use the impending showdown on the plan to undermine his chief political rivals, leaving his confidante, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, as his unquestioned heir apparent as leader of the party.

The other main protagonist is Trade and Industry Minister Ariel Sharon. The former defense minister would very much like to be prime minister. To advance that objective, analysts say, he will seek to cripple Shamir in the debate on the election plan or create a break-away coalition of right-wing interests.

Senior aides to the prime minister concede that if the election plan were voted down, Shamir would have difficulty remaining in power. That would open the possibility, considered unlikely, of a new coalition government headed by the Labor Party that would include several religious parties.

``Sharon's aim is not only to thwart the plan,'' says a senior aide to Shamir. ``He wants to topple Shamir and the break up the government.''

``Sharon is not playing games,'' concurs Hirsh Goodman, a political and military analyst. ``He has every intention of trying to split the party, or to gain a constituency within the party. The threat to Shamir is real.''

Political observers offer conflicting explanations for the events leading to next month's crucial party showdown.

One interpretation portrays the prime minister as a shrewd political operator who seized on the election plan as a means of putting the diplomatic ball in the court of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman, while consolidating the political middle in Israel. At the same time it would convince the Bush administration of Jerusalem's serious interest in negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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