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Saturday, 17 December (101 days to election day)

If it's Benjamin Netanyahu that terrorists want heading the Likud, they know precisely which triggers to pull.

With only days before the rank-and-file vote for a successor to Ariel Sharon as Likud candidate for prime minister, Fatah and Jihad gunmen killed an Israeli near his Hebron-area settlement.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians fired a dozen Qassam rockets into southern Israel, one of them slamming into a coastal area barely a mile from the city of Ashkelon.

If anyone in the Likud leadership race stands to be hurt by the violence, it is Netanyahu's only credible rival, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Shalom has pushed hard on his vision of the centrist moderate-right Real Likud reaping voters repelled both by Kadima's Peres-Ramon left flank and the Feiglinite right.

Under his stewardship, Shalom argues, Israel has leveraged the trauma of the disengagement into a string of diplomatic gains in warming ties with Islamic and Third World countries.

But if there is one resource that Netanyahu knows how to leverage, it is terrorism. Vulnerable within the party right over his toothless fight against the disengagement, distrusted by blue-collar Likudniks for what they saw as neo-Thatcherism in the treasury, Netanyahu may well ride a Qassam to victory on Monday.

Certainly no one knows the Hamas effect better than Netanyahu. In 1996, incumbent prime minister Shimon Peres held a 20-point lead in polls over then-political novice Netanyahu. Then four suicide bombings in nine days claimed 59 lives. The blasts erased Peres' lead and paved the way for a come-from-behind Netanyahu triumph.

Silvan Shalom enjoys massive, largely unrecognized support on the Likud "street," says social commentator Rino Zror.

"But one Qassam on Ashkelon can turn the tide for Netanyahu."