Next Step : 4 Israelis Jostle to Lead Likud Out of Wilderness : The favorite is strong on self-confidence but shy on ideas to revive party.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tired, divided and visionless after 15 years in power and its election defeat last June, Israel's Likud Party is trying to reshape itself with a new leader, a new image and a new political strategy with which it can challenge Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party.

The new leader will be chosen by Likud's 250,000 members in a partywide election Wednesday, and Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, 44, an American-educated, telegenic former diplomat, is likely to defeat all three rivals in a sweep he hopes will begin Likud's comeback.

"The country is on fire, the knife-wielders are running rampant in the streets," Netanyahu said in a televised debate last week. "In the face of such a government, such a failure, the question is who can replace it--and as quickly as possible.

"I am here. . . . I am the only one who can replace it, I am the only one who can return Likud to government."

"Napoleon!" snorted David Levy, 56, a longtime rival and one of the other candidates for the Likud leadership. Later, he called Netanyahu a "liar" and an "eel."

Zeev (Benny) Begin, 50, the son of the late Menachem Begin, who led Likud to power in 1977, warned that "a leadership devoid of content will not succeed," no matter how dynamic it appears. "Wonder solutions cannot succeed either," he added, no matter how well they are articulated.

But Netanyahu's victory is all but assured with opinion polls among Likud members showing him winning as much as 60% of the vote despite his televised confession of marital infidelity and accusations, apparently directed against Levy, of attempts to use the sexual liaison to blackmail him out of the race.

The only hope that Levy, Begin and Moshe Katsav, the fourth candidate, have is that, together, they can cut Netanyahu's share of the vote to less than 40% and thus force him into a runoff. In reality, they are competing not with Netanyahu but with each other for the No. 2 spot in the party leadership.

"Likud voters, as polls indicate, are about to bypass the middle generation of leadership in their party," Yoel Marcus, a liberal commentator in Haaretz, the country's most influential newspaper, said summing up the campaign. "The competition is between young-looking people, who dress young, speak Hebrew with a sabra (native), not Polish or French, accent. . . .

"We are perhaps witnessing a dramatic upheaval in Israeli politics. If Benjamin Netanyahu in fact is chosen to be the Likud leader, as the polls predict, we will for the first time see a man competing for the premiership who was born in Israel after the (1948) War of Independence. During the 1956 Sinai campaign, he was 6 years old, during the (1967) Six Day War he was 17. . . .

"In comparison with the geriatric department that has ruled the country until now, Netanyahu is a gladdening change. He perhaps may make history."

But Likud's ability to develop a matching new image and political strategy at its convention next month is far from certain.

Netanyahu's pursuit of the Likud leadership has been so single-minded since former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave it up that he has yet to lay out convincingly either a platform that will win back voters or a strategy to oust Rabin. And his bitter personal feud with Levy could split Likud badly.

Netanyahu initially talked of a two- or three-year effort to rebuild the party organization in preparation for the next election, which must be held before June, 1996, and of perhaps trying to pry a junior partner out of the Labor-led coalition government to force early elections.

During his campaign for the leadership, Netanyahu has made the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, a focus, implying that he would take a far harder line in the peace talks than Rabin has. He has accused Rabin of drawing up a secret plan for Israel's retreat from the strategic territory as part of a peace agreement with Syria. "Symbolic gestures" would be possible, he said, but nothing more.

Overall, however, Netanyahu's positions were so "thin," as one newspaper put it, that Israeli political commentators had little to assess besides his personality, campaign style and, of course, the scandal, known now as "Bibigate," over his extramarital affair.

What has left many Likud supporters uneasy is that Netanyahu's political philosophy appears focused simply on power, getting it and keeping it, and that his strategy for the party's comeback is summed up as "my leadership."

For a party that grew out of the ideologically driven, Zionist nationalism espoused for decades by Menachem Begin, this seems a virtual abandonment of principle in favor of the rankest form of political pragmatism.

Netanyahu's critics deride it as the "Americanization" of Israeli politics. They note that he has lived in the United States about 15 years altogether. They worry that the money he raises in California and New York will make him beholden to those contributors.

Most of all, they mock his ability to sum up his position quickly, suggesting he can only think in short, pithy "sound bites" intended for television. That is why he ducked extended interviews during the Likud campaign, they speculate.

(Despite his reputation as media-oriented, Netanyahu eight times over three months failed to keep appointments, arranged by his own staff, for an interview with The Times.)

But Netanyahu clearly calculates that, with the fundamental changes that are coming in the Israeli political system, including the direct, popular election of the next prime minister, Likud needs to focus on the electability of its leader and the marketability of its message. The ultimate issue, he insists when pressed, is leadership.

For that reason, Netanyahu has focused his fire on Rabin, virtually ignoring his three immediate rivals for the party leadership, in the hope of establishing himself in the political consciousness as an alternative to the Labor prime minister.

Amid the terrorist attacks of recent weeks, Israeli opinion polls show Rabin's popularity falling away quickly. A survey for the popular newspaper Hadashot showed Rabin losing to Netanyahu--and to Benny Begin as well--by roughly 39% to 36%, with a large group of voters undecided.

At the same time, Shas, the religious party in the governing coalition, has talked of withdrawing--sometimes to protest the secular character of the government, sometimes to protest the terrorist attacks and sometimes simply out of pique as its senior members are indicted, tried and jailed on various fraud charges.

Although such a pullout is not likely at present, Shas could deprive the Rabin government of six precious seats in the Knesset, the country's Parliament, reducing its total to 56 out of 120 members and making its survival dependent on the votes of the Communist and Arab parties.

Likud is already relishing the prospect of Netanyahu on the attack, both in the Knesset and on the campaign trail. "Rabin is on the run," a former Likud minister commented last week, "and we had best be sharp and fast in pursuit."

Even Shamir, little seen since the election defeat but buoyed by Rabin's misfortunes, has emerged to talk about Likud joining a national unity government similar to that Israel has had before.

But the Rabin government's supporters contend all such calculations are premature. While Rabin's personal popularity has dropped in the polls and there is discontent about his achievements after eight months, a strong consensus remains for his government's approach to the No. 1 issue--peace.

"The only way that Likud will return to government in the next elections, no matter whom it chooses as its leader, is if this (Rabin) government doesn't achieve peace," Samuel Peleg, a leader of the Peace Now movement, said of Netanyahu's leadership of Likud. "He can do cartwheels . . . and if the current government brings peace, nothing will help him."

Times researcher Emily L. Hauser in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

THE FRONT RUNNER

Name: Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu

Title: Diplomat and politician

Age: 44

Personal: Born in Tel Aviv. Master's in management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Deputy chief of mission, Israeli Embassy, Washington. Ambassador to United Nations. Deputy foreign minister. Deputy minister in prime minister's office. Married. Two children.

Quote: "The country is on fire, the knife-wielders are running rampant in the streets. I don't think there's a house, street or neighborhood that is immune .... In the face of such a government, such a failure, the question is who can replace it -- and as quickly as possible."

THE HOPEFULS

Name: Zeev (Benny) Begin

Age: 50

Title: Geologist

Personal: Born in Jerusalem. Ph.D. from Colorado State University. Former head of environmental affairs at Israel Geology Survey. Son of late Prime Minister Menahem Begin.First elected to Knesset in 1988. Married. Six children.

Quote: "The style of leadership necessary for Likud and the state of Israel relies. . .upon. . .a readiness to expound opinions that are not always popular."

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Name: Moshe Katsav

Title: Businessman

Age: 48

Personal: Born in Iran. Immigrated with parents at age 5. B.A. in history from Hebrew University. First elected to Knesset in 1977. Deputy minister of housing and construction, then minister of labor and welfare and minister of transportation. Married. Five children.

Quote: "I am in this race because I believe that I am the only one who can lead the party, unify it, rehabilitate it .... The faith of the people in Likud is there, but they have no faith in Likud's leadership."

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Name: David Levy

Title: Politician and union leader

Age: 56

Personal: Born in Morocco, immigrated at 20. First elected to Knesset in 1969. Immigration minister in Menahem Begin's Cabinet. Housing minister, deputy prime minister and foreign minister. Married. 12 children.

Quote: "Those who have not been in the opposition in the years before 1977 does not known, and apparently has not yet learned, how to get back into government .... You need experience."

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