Text size

A convincing victory by Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud primary Monday has sharply shifted the focus within the party to the direction the new Likud will take - will cooperation with center-right runner-up Silvan Shalom take precedence, with an emphasis on social issues, or will Netanyahu ally himself with the hawks whose votes propelled far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin to third place in the primary.

The vote count stood at 98 percent on Tuesday morning, with results falling within Channel 1 margin of error: Netanyahu's lead stood at 44.6 percent to Shalom's 33 percent. Feiglin received 15 percent while Katz got 8.7 percent.

One indication of Netanyahu's leadership will be the decision the Likud takes on the presence of its ministers in the Kadima-led government of Ariel Sharon.

Netanyahu is on record as favoring a swift, blanket resignation of all Likud ministers from the cabinet.

But Kadima faction chair Roni Bar-On, a former Likud kingmaker, said Tuesday that the ministers in question - Livnat, Foreign Minister Shalom, Education Minister Limor Livnat, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, and Health Minister Dan Naveh, might resist a bid to compel them to resign.

"If Bibi [Netanyahu] thinks that tomorrow morning they will all snap to attention when he tells them something, I assume that there's a surprise waiting for him," Kadima faction chair Roni Bar-On told Israel Radio on Tuesday morning, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

"I heard Limor Livnat speaking yesterday, She doesn't truly 'count' Bibi [grant much importance to what he says or orders]. She is in no hurry to leave the government." Bar-On hinted that Naveh and Shalom were also not keen to leave their positions.

Facing a crowded hall of supporters in the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv on Monday night, Netanyahu announced the Likud's intention to regain power in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Netanyahu swept to a comfortable victory in the Likud chairmanship race, as his main rival Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom conceded defeat in a phone conversation with him. The new Likud chairman vowed, following his victory, to work closely with Shalom in leading the Likud, Israel Radio reported on Tuesday morning.

Feiglin's surprisingly strong showing prompted many outside the party to criticize the Likud's turn to the right. Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima party, told Israel Radio the Likud had become an extreme right-wing, uncompromising party.

Olmert called Netanyahu the "imprisoned boy" caught between MK Uzi Landau's and Feigilin's extremism - "But not really a prisoner," Olmert continued, "because [Netanyahu] identifies with them."

On Monday night, however, Netanyahu expressed optimism for the campaign March elections.

"I came tonight to tell you Likud has taken the road back to leading the country," Netanyhau opened his victory speech. "During the primaries campaign I have seen a live, vibrant, active Likud," he added, "a Likud that only grows in strength."

Immediately after thanking Landau and his wife for their support, Netanyahu said he wishes "to extend wishes of full recovery and good health to the prime minister, from all of us and all Israeli citizens."

"Political analysts fail to understand that Likud is about belief in a way, this is what Likud represents," Netanyahu said.

"We are moving ahead together," he said. "When I say together I mean this excellent team standing on this podium and also Silvan Shalom, with whom we will work in partnership and unity."

"The country is facing great challenges, and I don't believe it is headed in the right direction. I think our way will lead it to safety," Netanyahu said.

Shalom: Likud can remain unitedAddressing his supporters, Silvan Shalom said he called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory and called on him to "sit down and work out a common program so that we can remain a united Likud."

"I've told Netanyahu that I will remain in the Likud and will join the efforts for Likud to succeed in the parliamentary elections," Shalom said.

Shalom, nevertheless, expressed his disappointment with voter turnout. "I wanted higher voting rates. Unfortunately those who didn't show at the ballot were probably my supporters."

Voter turnout was particularly low, with less than 40 percent of the the 128,000 party members casting their ballots. Voting began at 10 A.M. and closed at 10 P.M.

Ariel Sharon, who was hospitalized on Sunday evening after suffering a mild stroke, was briefed in hospital on the poll results. According to his advisors. Sharon was surprised with Feiglin's high support rate.

"If Bibi [Netanyahu] did, in fact, win, it was the extreme path that won," a Sharon confidant said.

If the poll results are confirmed in the final vote count, Netanyahu will run against Sharon, who quit the Likud party last month to form the Kadima centrist party, as his party's candidate for prime minister in the March 28 elections.

Netanyahu stated before the vote that if he won the primaries he would require all the Likud cabinet ministers to resign from the government - which would leave Sharon with virtually all of the ministerial portfolios.

Several Likud activists have also said that if Netanyahu won the primaries, he would revive the initiative to form an alternative government by mustering a 61-MK bloc who would support his candidacy as prime minister.

But Shinui Chairman MK Yosef Lapid said on Monday evening that his party will not adhere to such an initiative. "We will not support such a move which could imperil the peace process."

"The peace process is more important to us than many other process," Lapid said.

Minister Dan Naveh said that the primary vote "was a turning point in the Likud's recovery in the election campaign," and efforts to bring Likud voters, who had veered toward Kadima, back home.

MK Yuval Steinitz, a staunch Netanyahu ally, said that "the achievement is not only the great victory, but the fact that over 60,000 Likud members came out to vote in this difficult situation."

The poll results which showed far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin coming in third place with 15 percent of the votes, raised a storm of reactions from all across the political spectrum.

Feiglin said shortly after the release of the results that "all my actions have been direct and honest... This is an excellent evening for Israel, today a new, alternative Jewish government in Israel was born."

According to Feiglin, if the poll results turn out to be true, he will call Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory. Netanyahu's security and economy-oriented policies, Feiglin said, combined with his own "Jewish Agenda," could constitute a significant and refreshing change.

Netanyahu fears dispelledNetanyahu, who had enjoyed a clear lead over the other contenders in recent days' polls, feared that the low voter turnout would lead to a run-off with his main rival, Silvan Shalom, who has been narrowing the gap in polls.

"We mustn't give up on a single vote. Bring people over by taxis, get them in cars, even in wheelbarrows. Just get them, just bring them with a mighty hand and outstretched arm," a worried Netanyahu told his activists in Petah Tikva after receiving word of the extremely low turnout.

Analysts have said that a very low voter turnout, of some 30 percent, or a very high turnout, approaching 75-80 percent, would tend to favor Shalom in his bid to overtake front-runner Netanyahu. Netanyahu is said to be looking for a moderate turnout of 50-60 percent.

The voter turnout was considerably lower than in previous Likud primaries. Members of Netanyahu's elections headquarters hoped for a high turnout as recent polls indicated Netanyahu had a lead in the race, although Shalom had been narrowing the gap in recent days.

Netanyahu on Monday visited several sites across the country in a bid to encourage party members to come out to vote. He also urged his supporters to call on voters to cast their ballots. On Monday morning, Netanyahu visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem and from there went to meet activists in Rosh Ha'ayin, where a scuffle erupted after one activist called Netanyahu a liar.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he was "praying for the well-being of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon," who on Sunday evening suffered a minor stroke and was admitted to hospital. "But what matters is the health of the country, which does not look good," he told reporters.

Onlookers shouted "You ruined our lives" over his belt-tightening economic policies as finance minister, which won market praise for helping end the recession.

Shalom cast his vote at the Ramat Gan polling station and said that "tomorrow morning the battle on the Likud's future will begin as a party running against Labor and Kadima."