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Likud’s sharp step to the right throws Netanyahu off balance

Khalil is a Times staff writer.

Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a blow to his efforts to present a moderate face for his Likud Party after members elected a hard-line slate of candidates at the expense of more moderate names that the former prime minister had championed.

The primary results, which were announced Tuesday morning, set up an even starker than expected choice for Israeli voters in national elections scheduled for Feb. 10.

Most polls show Likud leading the centrist Kadima party, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. But the primary results could bolster Kadima’s claims that a Likud victory would doom any hope for negotiating peace with the Palestinians.

“This really opens the door for Kadima,” said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “They would have charged that Likud was too right-wing no matter what, but this just makes it easier.”

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Monday’s internal vote granted prominent spots to party members who support settlements in the occupied West Bank and opposed Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Former Likud leader Ariel Sharon broke from the party and formed Kadima in late 2005 after a series of battles with Likud’s right wing over his Gaza withdrawal plan.

Netanyahu had sought to present a more centrist image and lure back moderate voters who had jumped to Kadima. Instead, he now presides over a party electoral list filled with hard-liners, some of them his sworn political enemies. These include Moshe Feiglin, a settler who essentially led a successful rebel maneuver by the party’s right wing.

“He really is a danger for Likud,” Rahat said. “This can hurt them for sure.”

Feiglin has advocated barring Arabs from the Israeli parliament and withdrawing the Jewish state from the United Nations. He has patiently built support within Likud for years and has run for party leader three times, gaining more votes each time. Netanyahu, in a move that could come back to haunt him, openly campaigned against Feiglin’s bloc.

Feiglin placed No. 20 on the Likud electoral lists, virtually assuring him a spot in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament. Likud is projected to capture about 30 seats in the elections, up from the 12 it now holds.

Other hard-liners receiving top spots include Benny Begin, son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and retired Gen. Moshe Yaalon. The younger Begin is a former Likud minister who quit the party in the 1990s, claiming it had grown too moderate. He briefly formed his own right-wing party, but in recent years had retired from national politics.

Yaalon, a former army chief of staff who helped suppress the second Palestinian intifada, recently courted controversy by telling an Australian newspaper that Israel should consider assassinating Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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Netanyahu put on a brave face regarding the vote, calling the Likud electoral list “the best team that any party in our country can put forward.”

But observers and analysts here viewed the vote as not only a dramatic shift to the right for Likud but also a personal defeat for Netanyahu.

“One would need to suffer from amnesia and close his eyes in order to characterize this list as centrist or moderate,” Attila Somfalvi wrote on the prominent Ynet news website. “Benjamin Netanyahu can keep on saying that in his view this is an excellent roster. It is doubtful whether he is even able to convince himself.”

The results now leave Likud open to accusations that the party represents an extreme right-wing viewpoint that would scuttle peace negotiations and set Israel on a collision course with the United States, its chief ally.

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“The Likud will remain a right-wing party that will isolate Israel in a corner,” said outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a longtime Likud member who followed Sharon to Kadima. A Likud victory in February, Olmert said, “will cause significant diplomatic damage to Israel.”

Other prominent Kadima politicians could barely contain their pleasure over the Likud results.

“This makes life easier for us,” said Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, a Livni supporter. “If they form the government, there is no chance for the peace process.”

Livni also tied the results to Netanyahu and his hopes to be the next prime minister.

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“The Likud list isn’t my problem, it’s Bibi’s problem,” she said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “They are weights on his feet, not mine, and he needs to cope with it.”

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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