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Benjamin Netanyahu returned to his natural element yesterday. Like in the old, never-to-be-forgotten days of "They are af-raid" and "Is everyone here a Likudnik," he gave a sweaty, almost surreal performance with shouting cheerleaders at his feet and vote-stealing supporters at his side.

The ritual formal declaration of his candidacy for the Likud leadership lacked a guiding hand and fell somewhere between press conference, gathering of party faithful and reenactment of the fiasco of the 1997 party convention.

Netanyahu would have been happy if a few cabinet ministers and senior party figures had shared the stage, but instead all he had was a short visit by Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, who as usual during right-wing demonstrations did not take the stage, and longer appearances by two of the Likud "rebels," the ubiquitous David Levy and Natan Sharansky.

Conventional wisdom states that yesterday Netanyahu addressed the Likud inner circle, and that after conquering them he would become statesmanlike again. That is why he felt comfortable telling half-truths and stretching his credibility gap: What, it took him two and a half years to figure out that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was giving a green light to terror?

And what about the corruption? That has been hanging over the heads of Sharon and his sons for three or four years, ever since Yedioth Ahronoth exposed the Greek Island Affair. Netanyahu only now remembered to mention how much it bothered him? And is it appropriate for Netanyahu to speak of routing out corruption when his partners on the dais included three people implicated in serious scandals: Ehud Yatom, Naomi Blumenthal and Michael Gorolovsky? And if Sharon's trampling of Likud principles pained Netanyahu so deeply, why didn't he quit after the poll of Likud members on the disengagement?

If we really want to be picky we could ask about the "thousands of refugees in their country" statement. Did Netanyahu mean the settlers who were resettled in Israel, with generous compensation packages, when he was treasurer? Or the thousands of families who were evicted from their modest apartments after his economic policies made it impossible for them to repay their mortgages? And if he had to say how he scared Yasser Arafat, then can we mention that the only prime minister to call the late Palestinian Authority chairman "a true friend and partner" was PM Netanyahu?

So where does Netanyahu have a real case? In his demand that Sharon promise to remain in the Likud if he loses the party primary. Netanyahu did so when he lost to Sharon in November 2000 and he can demand the same from Sharon, because that is the scenario that keeps Netanyahu awake at night: If Sharon splits the Likud, either before or after the primaries, it could keep Netanyahu from become prime minister. Both Netanyahu and Sharon know it, and both know the other knows it too. That might be why Sharon looks so relaxed, even when everything appears to be crashing down on him and why Netanyahu looks so stressed even when things seem to be going his way.

Yesterday afternoon, before Netanyahu's press conference, Degel Hatorah chairman Moshe Gafni met with Sharon in Jerusalem to talk about the budget crisis that is preventing the start of the school year in the Haredi sector. Last year when Netanyahu was treasurer, Gafni told Sharon, he gave us money and ended the crisis. Sharon didn't react. Gafni, a crafty politician, kept repeating his statement and Sharon began peeking at his watch. You know, Sharon said, I usually don't check my watch during our meetings but I fear you'll be late for his press conference. If you miss him so much, maybe you should be sitting with him.

Sharon burst out laughing when he read the transcript of Netanyahu's speech, according to Sharon's entourage. Maybe. We'll never know. But Shimon Peres, whose political longevity exceeds Sharon's, was certainly smiling last night. The "eternal loser" of Israeli politics, according to former PM Ehud Barak, was nearly crowned as the next prime minister by Barak himself.

In an interview to Channel 10, Barak called on all Labor Party leadership candidates to rally behind Peres. It sounds surprising, but it's not: Barak has been thinking about it for a long time, ever since he realized that he can't win the party nomination himself. From his perspective, it makes sense to support Peres for the next election. Many of his supporters recommended he do so when he announced his return to politics. But Barak, like Netanyahu, wants it all and wants it now. If it works, and Peres is nominated, then there will be a repeat of the 1996 Peres-Netanyahu fight card. The only question left is, where will Sharon be then?