Elections 2009 Topsy-turvy Campaign for Once Invincible Likud

While Likud leaned to center earlier in the race, Netanyahu now stresses the extreme right-wing elements of his party.

Benjamin Netanyahu is arriving at the 2009 elections with two strategic achievements in hand, both of which were over a year in the works. First, a historic alliance between Likud and Shas that was renewed after a long, intensive courting period on his own part, and second, the recruitment of prominent figures, including former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, back to the party.

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Begin and Meridor, who had left the party amid dissatisfaction with Netanyahu, were welcomed back at a ceremonial press conference at Jabotinsky House, Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters.

Other recognizable names were also added to the list: former IDF spokesperson Miri Regev, basketball legend Tal Brody, former police chief Assaf Hefetz, former general Uzi Dayan and religious-affairs columnist Tzipi Hotovely.

Each of them raced to jump on the bandwagon that is today's Likud, which, since the Second Lebanon War, has generally topped voter surveys. The cavalcade of stars catapulted the party to 35 seats in the polls, and Netanyahu steadily moved to the center of the political spectrum.

But then the party experienced its first set-back, on the eve of drafting its candidate roster, the Moshe Feiglin affair.

Netanyahu was horrified at the prospect of the far-rightist securing a high spot on the list and coloring the party the bright orange of the national-religious right, and immediately set about pushing Feiglin to the periphery.

When all the votes were counted, it seemed the show of force had failed, and Feiglin took the 20th slot. Netanyahu persisted, and through intraparty legal procedures managed to push his rival back to 36th place on the roster.

The operation in Gaza benefited Netanyahu and the Likud. Polls were in Netanyahu's favor, Kadima seemed to be on the edge of collapse and Likud had all but distributed ministerial portfolios. Netanyahu seemed invincible.

But as the offensive ended, it soon became clear the big winner was Yisrael Beiteinu. Surveys showed a steady flow of support away from Likud and toward Avigdor Lieberman.

Meetings were held daily on the Lieberman issue, and in the end party officials decided to keep the non-aggression pact with Yisrael Beiteinu intact. Still, over time Lieberman appeared more and more as a strategic threat. Likud had shrunk, as had its lead over Kadima.

The final days of Likud's campaign were characterized by attempts to stop the rush of support to other rightist factions, and returning defectors back to the party fold to gain strength opposite the threat posed by Kadima.

At the same time, Likud members waged a public battle against Lieberman, and Netanyahu in his public remarks swerved violently to the right.

At every microphone, from every tall building, Netanyahu seemed to be telling the nation: Vote for me, or Tzipi Livni will accidentally be allowed to lead the country.

If at the start of election season Netanyahu leaned towards the center and tried to hide the more extreme right-wing elements of his party, now he is making every effort to make sure they are on full display.