Dr. Yuval Steinitz, one of the most influential Likud stalwarts in the Knesset, lashed out against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during a just concluded visit to Southern California.
Steinitz, who chairs the key Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as intelligence and security subcommittees, spoke his mind after Israeli media reported that Sharon decided to leave Likud and form a new centrist party.
"A party leader cannot leave his party," he said in a phone interview. "It goes against the basic democratic norms and is damaging to Israel."
"Sharon is very talented, but he has always had a problem about basic rules of behavior," said Steinitz, who in his chairman's post reports directly to Sharon and has known him for seven years.
Former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion "spoke of his problematic personality," added Steinitz, and former Prime Minister Menahem Begin considered Sharon "dangerous."
Steinitz spoke with leaders of the American Friends of Likud during his visit last weekend and said he was "100 percent confident that they will stay with Likud. They wouldn't even consider any other course because it would be immoral."
That remains to be seen, of course. The stance of American Likud supporters matters in Israel because Israeli leaders call on American Jews both for financial support and to advocate for Israel within the U.S.
Steinitz acknowledged that Sharon had played a key role in the formation of the Likud Party but argued that this made the prime minister's current action even more reprehensible.
"Sharon also built the settlements [in Gaza)] and then destroyed them," said Steinitz, who is considered on the right wing of Likud but said he voted for disengagement from Gaza.
"It's like parents who bring children into the world, but that doesn't give the father or mother the right to destroy them," he added.
Steinitz enthusiastically lauded the leadership qualities of Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, who is likely to become the new head of the weakened Likud Party.
"Bibi was a very good prime minister and finance minister," Steinitz said. "His record on security and the economy is the best in Israeli history."
Whether the political upheaval will hurt Israel's standing in the Middle East and the world is "completely uncertain," said Steinitz, but he predicted a political slide for Sharon.
"Our history shows that new centrist parties start with a lot of appeal but decline within a few months time," Steinitz said. "Even if Sharon loses only 30 percent of his Likud support, he will be bypassed in a new election by both Likud and Labor." He predicted that 10-15 out of 40 Likud Knesset members would follow Sharon into his new party.
The 47-year old Steinitz, who is "on leave" from his post as philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, switched from Peace Now activist to Likud hardliner over his opposition to the Oslo agreement.
During a busy schedule in the Los Angeles area, Steinitz spoke at a Jewish Republican conclave, in Orange County, the Iranian community's Nessah synagogue, B'nai David-Judea Congregation and UCLA Hillel.
Steinitz expressed confidence that despite the liberalism of the Jewish communities in California, the nascent American Friends of Likud organization on the West Coast would attract supporters.
"There are lots of conservative Jews and they feel a strong commitment to Israel," he said.