Netanyahu takes over Likud

The former prime minister sets about rebuilding the conservative party Ariel Sharon just left.

After his decisive win in the Likud party election Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu takes over the party that has run Israel for most of the last 30 years. But he grabs the reins at a time when Likud is in a shambles, and few give it a chance of beating Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's breakaway Kadima (Forward) party in a March election.

It's not an unfamiliar situation for the former prime minister.

A decade ago, the young Likud chairman faced a seemingly unbridgeable gap in pre-election opinion polls, which then favored the party and peace plan of recently assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The razor-thin comeback victory in 1996 earned him the nickname "the magician."

After Netanyahu rode to victory in a leadership primary over former Sharon ally and current foreign minister Silvan Shalom, Likud once again finds itself in the shadow of a widely popular prime minister pitching reconciliation with the Palestinians before a parliamentary vote this March.

"He's going to have to really pull another rabbit out of the hat," says Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. "I think the ideological lines have been drawn, and I think the large part of the country is dead center and Netanyahu is too far off from that."

And even though Sharon's minor stroke Sunday exposed an unanticipated health - and some say electoral - vulnerability, Netanyahu desperately needs to find a strategy to counterbalance polls that project Likud to win about a fourth of the parliamentary seats as Sharon's new party, according to the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper. According to the latest polls, Likud would win only 13 seats in March, a steep drop from its current 40.

"The situation of Likud worries all of us because the party is [split]," Likud parliament member Michael Eitan said in an interview with Israel Radio. "The former director of Likud went and set up a competing business and took all of the tools, leaving us in a very bad situation."

Observers wonder whether it's possible for Netanyahu to reclaim Israeli moderates after Sharon swept the country's consensus leftward with his support for a Palestinian state and unilateral steps to determine the country's borders.

Netanyahu's opposition to Sharon's widely popular pullout from the Gaza Strip in September burnished his image as a hard-liner with a kinship to the country's far-right.

But if the crude rockets fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip continue to fall near the coastal city of Ashkelon, Netanyahu will get a potent platform on which to attack Sharon for the unilateral pullout. Likud will also try to sow concern among Israelis that the prime minister's promise of "painful concessions" will be too high.

"Netanyahu will aim to stress the possibility of a second disengagement and final status agreement, which means dismantling 80 percent of the settlements and compromise on Jerusalem," said Ethan Dor Shav, an associate fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute. "If the focus is on the peace plan of the Kadima party, Netanyahu can galvanize voters. If it's more general, then he's going to be in trouble."

Experts say Netanyahu's reputation has been blemished by a prime ministerial tenure that was regarded as a failure, and by changing his position on the Gaza withdrawal at the last minute.

Sharon may take much of Likud with him

Another problem for Netanyahu is that the coalition of constituencies that joined together under the Likud umbrella is unraveling. Sharon is threatening to steal away Israel's center-right security hawks, and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz wants to lure working-class voters who have been alienated by Netanyahu's welfare slashes as finance minister under Sharon. And on the far right, Netanyahu may be blamed for coming out against Sharon too late.

Those constituencies were never united by ideology, but by fear of concessions to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, says Mr. Dor Shav. After Arafat's death a year ago, Likud lost a potent campaign card.

A campaign wild card?

But an unexpected wild card entered into the campaign, when doctors at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem announced on Sunday that Sharon suffered a minor stroke. Sharon was released on Tuesday, saying he was looking forward to getting back to work. And even though doctors said the prime minister suffered no physical damage, his ailment may have exposed an Achilles heel.

"There is a new criteria, and that is that the chances of a stroke recurring are very high," says Dor Shav. "And that's going to be highlighted by Sharon's opponents."

The stroke underlined the degree to which Sharon's Kadima is a one-man party, possibly scaring off voters wary of wasting ballots on a political party that may dissolve without Sharon, say analysts.

And yet, Hebrew University Political Science Professor Yaron Ezrahi said Sharon's medical complications may have the opposite effect, galvanizing voters who believe him to be the only one capable of taking risks for peace with the Palestinians.

"This will be a reminder that they don't have much time.''

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