Netanyahu 'Stars' Dim on Likud List, as Hawks Dominate Primary

Only two of Netanyahu's 10 imports to Likud make it to top 10 in primary - hardliners Begin and Ya'alon.

Benjamin Netanyahu's bid to cast his Likud as Israel's moderate consensus party was dealt a blow in a hard-fought primary, which saw hardliners dominate the top 10 slots, and far-right rival Moshe Feiglin score well enough to be all but assured of a place in the next Knesset.

Of the 10 candidates Netanyahu presented as new faces and returning Likud leaders - dubbed as his "stars" by Israeli media - only two hardliners, former Likud MK Benny Begin and ex-army chief Moshe Ya'alon, made the top 10.

By contrast, all of the top five candidates in the Monday contest, MK Gideon Sa'ar, MK Gilad Erdan, and former MKs Reuven Rivlin, Moshe Kahlon, and Begin, had won Feiglin's explicit endorsement. Despite Netanyahu's strenuous efforts to sideline him, Feiglin won the 20th slot on the list.

Netanyahu had hoped that moderates like ex-MK Dan Meridor and former senior security chiefs Uzi Dayan and Assaf Hefetz would attract centrist voters. But Meridor came in 17th, and Dayan and Hefetz appeared out of the running for the Knesset, coming in 42nd and 38th respectively.

Opinion polls released last week showed that the Likud would win 35 of parliament's 120 seats, compared with 26 for Kadima, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

But analysts have said that one key to continued Likud momentum ahead of the February 10 contest, was a public perception of Netanyahu's party as essentially centrist in outlook, the strategy that propelled Kadima to vistory in 2006.

Tzahi Hanegbi, a senior Kadima legislator and campaign strategist, said the "real Likud" had emerged from the party election.

"Netanyahu's dream team became his nightmare. The stars are out and the rebels are in," Hanegbi said, referring to Kahlon and others who fought against then-Likud chief Ariel Sharon surrounding the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

Political analyst Hanan Crystal said Netanyahu had hoped a less hawkish profile for Likud would help the party capture more centre ground from Kadima, which has been slipping in the polls since October.

"Netanyahu understands that battle lines with Kadima have been drawn in the fight for ... the 10 to 15 parliamentary seats determined by votes from the moderate right and center," Crystal told Israel Radio.

Netanyahu put a positive face on the results, calling the list "the best possible" in a speech to party loyalists andvowing to "improve security, strengthen the economy and continue a responsible diplomatic process" with Palestinians.

Netanyahu, prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has said he would focus on strengthening the Palestinian economy rather than on territorial issues that current U.S.-brokered statehood talks have failed to resolve.

Former foreign minister Silvan Shalom, who was Netanyahu's most vocal critic from within his own party, won the sixth place, followed by former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Ya'alon who won seventh place.

Likud members's vote for the party's Knesset list did not go unhindered. The voting was extended until 1 A.M. due to complaints of long lines and a cumbersome voting process.

Even Netanyahu himself had to ask for help when voting at a computerized station, calling over an expert who joined him behind the cardboard barrier hiding the computer.

Netanyahu was initially considering extending the vote, which was to close at 10 P.M., until Tuesday, but the chairman of the Likud central voting committee, judge Harpaz, decided to extend the vote until 1 A.M.

Fearing that Feiglin's radical views could drive centrist voters away, Netanyahu's list of recommended candidates was aimed primarily at keeping Feiglin and his supporters off the slate.

Several senior Likud officials urged the Likud members on Sunday to ignore Netanyahu's recommendations when they cast their votes in the vote.

The list infuriated many senior party members, who warned that Netanyahu risks a backlash: Should the candidates he is opposing nevertheless make it onto the party's Knesset slate, they are liable to retaliate by working against him in the Knesset.

"In a democratic process, it is not good for the movement's leader to be recommending this or that person," commented MK Reuven Rivlin.