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Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping and wishing the Labor Party will maintain its strength in the coming elections. He wants Defense Minister Ehud Barak to be the defense minister in his cabinet. He is relying on him and knows he will need Barak and his sangfroid in the difficult days ahead. But he also knows that a Labor Party with 10 seats in the Knesset, maybe less, does not constitute a coalition partner and certainly can't hope for the defense portfolio.

In his speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session, Netanyahu declared that after the elections he would call upon Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Barak to serve in a broad unity government under his leadership. But Netanyahu's associates are describing a different scenario, whereby Netanyahu, in the event of a Likud-right-ultra-Orthodox bloc majority, would form a government with Labor, the ultra-Orthodox parties and Yisrael Beiteinu - leaving Kadima in the opposition. Netanyahu assumes that about half of the members of that faction, most of them former Likud members, would hasten to split from it and join his government.

However, in order to carry out this plan, Netanyahu, as noted, needs Labor. At the moment, according to the public opinion polls, he has nothing to build on. He will have to bring in Kadima and keep Livni in the Foreign Ministry.

When asked whom they would want to be prime minister, respondents to the Haaretz-Dialog survey, conducted under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, answered the following: 28 percent favored Netanyahu, 24 percent tapped Livni and 6 percent pointed to Barak. Respondents were also asked who they thought would likely be elected prime minister: 43 percent replied Netanyahu, 24 percent replied Livni and 5 percent replied Barak.

Add to this the significant strengthening of the Likud versus Kadima by six Knesset seats in just three weeks, and the future looks bright for Netanyahu.

With another two and a half months of campaigning ahead of us, the gloves are likely to come off soon. "I know," says Netanyahu, "that they will scrutinize every little thing from my past to use against me, but in the end it will be determined by one issue only: competence. In the economy, in security, with the best team, versus atmosphere."

Netanyahu knows he is the most vulnerable candidate in these elections. The best ammunition against him comes from home: the things that were said against him in previous periods by Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon will in all likelihood star in paid advertisements and billboards, and will embarrass both him and the speakers.

Since the start of this election campaign, Netanyahu has avoided making mistakes. He has stopped being interviewed on morning news programs on the radio and has stopped forcing himself on the editors of current events programs at 6 P.M. He is being strict about campaign discipline.

Livni, his main rival, has nearly evaporated. Twice a day, she releases a "response" to some issue (Qassams in Gaza, public security, the economic situation), statements like "Israel will not stand for its citizens being harmed" - little more than Chinese fortune cookies.

Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, the fiercest attack dog Livni has, is now paralyzed by the affair of his double vote in the Knesset in 2003, which cropped up this week. He will find it hard to indulge in his favorite hobby, swiping at Netanyahu.

What is worrying Netanyahu these days apart from Barak? "Yuli!" he says. Not Education Minister Yuli Tamir of the Labor Party, but MK Yuli Edelstein of his own party, the Russian candidate who is vying for a spot on the national list. Netanyahu wants him near the top of the list. He would also like to help Dan Meridor, who is perceived as weaker and more vulnerable than his friend Benny Begin. Netanyahu does say that Meridor will be a minister and a member of the inner cabinet, no matter what his place on the list, but - to prevent embarrassment - he will try to help him. And especially Yuli.

People close to Netanyahu say he is wary of the possibility that Ya'alon could become defense minister. The 17th chief of staff's record with respect to the Second Lebanon War is less than stunning. Ya'alon also comes across as a person who is well-aware of his dignity and status. Netanyahu already had a defense minister with an elevated sense of his own importance, Yitzhak Mordecai - a relationship that ended badly.

Netanyahu, as noted, would prefer Barak in the role, or in the case of a post-electoral split in Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, who is now transportation minister. Netanyahu would gladly appoint Ya'alon education minister "to implement reforms." After one all-nighter in the company of Ran Erez, head of the Secondary-School Teachers Association, Ya'alon will be nostalgic for the good old snakes at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Another reason for Netanyahu not to appoint Ya'alon to defense? He will not give Netanyahu any wiggle room vis-a-vis the Palestinians in the West Bank. United States president-elect Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, if she is appointed secretary of state, will discover that Netanyahu makes promises to them in Washington and Ya'alon breaks them on the ground.

This week Netanyahu sat next to Ya'alon at a press conference in Metzudat Ze'ev, the Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters. Ya'alon spoke out against negotiations. Any negotiations. Netanyahu tensed: "We will continue the diplomatic talks with everyone," he said, "but on a realistic, sober basis. We won't just give things and get terror."

Last September, Ya'alon appeared before the Oversight Committee for the Examination of the Implementation of the Values of Zionism in the Land of Israel. According to a report in the local Haifa newspaper, Uvda, this committee has published a document calling upon the Arabs of Israel, "who find it difficult to accept the Zionist and democratic character of Israel, to leave for one of the Arab states." Ya'alon reportedly said: "I do not believe in the possibility of peace between Jews and Arabs."

Ya'alon denies saying this. He also claims that he did not know about the document the committee had published. He contends having said that he can not imagine seeing "a stable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our generation."

Nor does he support the transfer of the Arabs of Israel. "I have, after all, commanded Arabs. I have had Arab soldiers."

Will Netanyahu know how to stand up to international pressure, American for the most part, to advance the peace process with Syria and the Palestinians?

Ya'alon: "I believe he will, but every leader needs people around him to help him."

Why aren't you in the Labor Party?

"Because that party has strayed from its path. When Barak went to Camp David, I understood what he said: Let's get it over with and expose Arafat's real face. But his party, especially [President Shimon] Peres, [Vice Premier Haim] Ramon, [Meretz-Yahad MK Yossi] Beilin and [former foreign minister Professor Shlomo] Ben-Ami, did not allow him to complete the process of exposing Arafat's true colors. Barak did not want Annapolis, but he was forced to lead what is called 'the peace camp.'"

So what do you propose?

"Not to stop talking, but I want to see that the Palestinians are capable of being in control in Jenin and Nablus. First let them carry out educational, economic, political and security reforms as well as the area of law and order. What they are doing today is only law and order. This isn't enough."

All in the family

Uzi Dayan was running around this week at the Likud central committee, marketing himself to the vote brokers. His joining the party preceded the arrival of Begin, Meridor and Ya'alon. He will be on the list, but Netanyahu is keeping key portfolios for other people. The day after the central committee met, Dayan went to the printing press and ordered a sticker for his campaign. To the right is uncle Moshe Dayan in the company of Menachem Begin sometime at the end of the 1970s; to the left, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Uzi Dayan himself in the company of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the mid-1990s. "Dayan in the Likud - making history," shouts the sticker.

"Disgusting," says Moshe Dayan's daughter and former MK, Yael Dayan. "Simply disgusting. Not Uzi personally - his conduct. I want to remind everyone that my father never became a member of the Likud. He had a saying: 'Once Labor, always Labor,' which is what he replied when Menachem Begin said to him: Come, take the negotiations with Egypt into your hands. Before he joined, he gave Begin his terms: not to establish Jewish settlements in densely populated areas, for example. He kept himself separate politically from the Likud's line.

"This is a deceptive act - a lying, manipulative and unworthy depiction of things. No one, including Uzi, has the right to claim for himself my father's legacy for political needs. And anyway, if he is relying on Moshe Dayan's memory from 1978-79 - he should also take upon himself the Dayan of 1973. Both the good and the bad. Moshe Dayan was many things."

All abuzz about Meretz

Without having done anything, Meretz has grown by two Knesset seats: from five in the previous survey to seven - merely because people are talking about it. It has swallowed up the Greens, who in previous surveys were paddling around two or three Knesset seats, and is threatening to gnaw deeply into the Labor Party.

Twelve percent of the respondents in this survey say that if the new Meretz-Labor configuration causing so much buzz is established, they will vote for it. No less than one-third of the Labor Party are prepared to hop on this train. This amounts to three Knesset seats. The new Meretz, in this scenario, would be even larger than Labor.

In any case, New Meretz, or whatever it is called, will continue to fulfill itself in the opposition. Interestingly, hard-core Meretz voters are less than enthusiastic about the new movement: 41 percent say they do not know whether they will vote for the new movement, and 21 percent say they would not.

In light of the impending Likud comeback, it is hard to imagine that two and a half years ago most Likudniks chose to stay home or voted for Kadima on election day. Most Likud members have since convinced themselves that it never happened - that once Likud, always Likud.