JERUSALEM — 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."