JERUSALEM — STILL reeling from the scale of their defeat in this week's elections, Likud Party officials are already looking ahead to an ugly battle over who will pick up the pieces of the party that has dominated Israeli politics for the past 15 years.
Five hopefuls have already thrown their hats in the ring to succeed Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir after his expected resignation. Their rivalry is "a volcano rumbling, getting ready to explode," in the words of Jerusalem Post columnist Asher Wallfish.
Their fight for the leadership is bound to exacerbate one of the shortcomings that led to the Likud's loss of power - fierce infighting among its factions that severely damaged the party's public image.
But as party officials and analysts pick over the election results for clues as to what went wrong, they also point to other factors.
"After 15 years in power, there was a natural wish for change," says Michael Kleiner, a Likud Knesset (parliament) member who lost his seat.
The opposition Labor Party played heavily on this point during its campaign, comparing Likud to a dirty shirt that needed changing after so long.
One of the reasons, Labor TV spots sugggested, was that Likud's lengthy spell in office had encouraged corruption in party ranks, and this charge stuck. "A lot of this election was about chucking out the rotten apples," says Peter Medding of Hebrew University.
At the same time, the Likud failed to make the Middle East peace process, potentially a vote-winner, the top issue in the electorate's mind. Unusually for Israel, "people voted on domestic issues, and Labor dictated the agenda" in that sphere, according to Yossi Olmert, a Likud official in charge of the Government Press Office.
The result was that Likud ceded ground even among its bedrock supporters, poorer Sephardic Jews of non-European origins, lost heavily among the middle-class voters who had given Likud the edge in recent elections, and failed badly among new immigrants from the former Soviet Union now struggling to make a living.
Fifty-eight percent of the new Russian immigrants who voted chose Labor or the left-wing Meretz Party, while only 18 percent voted for Likud, according to an exit poll conducted for Israeli television. That contributed four seats to Labor's advantage over the Likud.
Meanwhile, Yitzhak Rabin's leadership of the Labor Party - a focal point of Labor's campaign - undoubtedly contributed to Likud's downfall. "People had reasons to vote against the Likud before, but they were never enough to bring them to vote for [Shimon] Peres," Labor's previous leader, says Mr. Kleiner. "This time it was different." It also helped, says Naomi Chazan, a new Meretz member of the Knesset, "that for the first time in 15 years it was the left that was united and the right that was fragmente d."
As the Likud prepares to go into the opposition, Mr. Shamir has intimated that he is planning to resign as party leader, but the question of who will replace him is complicated by the fact that there is no fixed mechanism to choose a successor.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, and Foreign Minister David Levy are all jockeying for position, as are two younger leaders popular in Likud ranks, Benjamin Begin, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Benjamin Netanyahu.
"The sooner the Likud votes for a new leader the better, but I don't think they can decide quickly on how to do it," says one senior Likud official. "It's going to be a big problem."
The competition for the Likud's top slot is expected to be bitter. "The knives are not yet out," says Professor Medding. "But they are sharpening them."