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Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu harshly criticized the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, led by then prime minister Ehud Barak, saying the move was irresponsible, and that Barak's administration "brought [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasarllah to our fence."

The Likud leader, who also served a term as prime minister, spoke at a Likud Party conference marking the first anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, saying Barak was "amateur, rash and adventurous."

Barak won the Labor Party primary on June 12, and polls show the he poses the biggest threat to Netanyahu's likely bid for the position of prime minister in the next elections.

"Barak is a dilettante and reckless politician who has a tendency to pursue political adventures," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu called the 12 months that have passed since the Second Lebanon War broke out "a year of failure and treading in place. We believe we can pull this country out of the quagmire; we can walk down a different path."

The conference was attended by other senior Likud figures, who also chose to sling barbs at Barak. MK Gideon Sa'ar said that by not retaliating for Hezbollah's abduction of three Israel Defense Forces soldiers near Mount Dov in October 2000, Barak, who was then prime minister, "had created an infrastructure for abductions."

Earlier Tuesday, the Likud Central Committee decided the party's leadership primary would be held on August 14.

The committee's decision comes in the wake of sharp exchanges Monday between Netanyahu and his associate and MK Silvan Shalom, who said he was quitting the race.

Shalom, who announced earlier in the day that he was stepping down from the election, blasted Netanyahu for trying to carry out a "coup" rather than conduct a fair election campaign.

"What is going on today in the Likud is reminiscent of the Ba'ath party in Syria," Shalom said. "There are those who want to stage a coup, but I will not be a part of that," he said.

Shalom was referring to Netanyahu's intention to request that the central committee approve early leadership primaries at the beginning of September.

Shalom has held senior cabinet positions in previous governments, including finance minister and foreign minister, and has been a long-time rival of Netanyahu.

"Yet again Bibi has let emotions supersede logic and judgment," Shalom said. "Almost two years ago, in September 2005, Bibi read in polls he was beating [former prime minister] Ariel Sharon and so immediately worked for early primaries," he said.

"Bibi is a champion in small victories, but always loses the big issues," Shalom said in private conversations, "he is a man of immediate satisfactions."

The former foreign minister continued: "What then happened to the Likud? We crashed. Today too, Bibi is reading polls and thinks he needs to act hastily. This same process, I fear, will have exactly the same result."

Shalom said that Netanyahu's aggressive management of the party has driven many activists away. "This aggression is an obstacle blocking the progress of the Likud. It is what has brought us the lowest results twice with Bibi's leadership: once with 19 mandates, and once with only 12," he said.

He described his pulling out of the race by saying: "The upcoming contest in the Likud will be between Bibi and [extreme right-winger] Moshe Feiglin, and may the best man win."

He admitted that Netanyahu's decision to hold primaries at such short notice caught him unprepared.

Shalom's confidants said Monday that despite the polls predicting a constant advantage to the Likud, the continued rivalry in the party's leadership would make it difficult for Netanyahu to win in the next general elections.

"Ehud Barak has an advantage in public opinion," they said. "Netanyahu keeps talking about the Iranian threat, but at the moment of truth people rely on Barak more," they said.

Netanyahu's aides said that Shalom had "fled from a showdown when he realized he was going to be defeated as he had never been before."

Senior Likud sources said that once Shalom quits, the primaries may be canceled or even held in August rather than on September 3, as Netanyahu had planned.