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Most Experts Predict Further Shift to Right in Israeli Politics - 2002-11-08

In Israel, most experts predict a further shift to the right when elections are held early next year. But who will try to lead the right-wing Likud bloc to power is still an open question.

Three months before they go to the polls, many Israelis think they know what the results will be.

Most analysts are predicting that the right-wing Likud Party, currently headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, will easily win the most seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

The more difficult question is whether Mr. Sharon can hang on to the Likud leadership. He faces a strong challenge from Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, who is determined to regain control of the party, three years after he led it to a humiliating defeat against Labor.

The weeks before the Likud primaries, expected by the end of the month, promise to be difficult for both men, despite their having worked together in the past.

Mr. Netanyahu agreed to be sworn in Wednesday as foreign minister in Mr. Sharon's outgoing government. It is a reversal of roles. Mr. Sharon served as foreign minister in Mr. Netanyahu's administration.

In May of 1999, as he left the parliament after his defeat, Mr. Netanyahu even made a point of thanking Mr. Sharon for his loyalty.

At the time, few dreamt Mr. Sharon would be prime minister two years later. What brought Mr. Sharon to power was the start of the violent Palestinian uprising in September 2000, and it is likely to keep him in the top job, if he manages to convince Likud activists to nominate him. Susan Hattis Rolef, an Israeli political scientist, says this is the most difficult question to answer at this stage. "The question, in terms of his [Mr. Sharon's] contest with Bibi Netanyahu, is not at all clear what is going to happen there," she said. "It is going to be a very interesting battle within the Likud."

The candidate for the premiership from the left-leaning Labor camp, the main opposition, will be decided on November 19.

The outcome of that contest seems more certain. Labor's chairman, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, is likely to lose. It was Mr. Ben-Eliezer who pulled Labor out of Mr. Sharon's coalition last week, ostensibly over the issue of funding for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

More than one observer concluded that Mr. Ben-Eliezer's real goal was to set up his campaign to hold on to the leadership of Labor by first removing himself from the tentacles of the government. Most analysts also believe the gamble is not likely to pay off. Opinion polls indicate that the leadership battle is likely to be won by a newcomer to national politics, Amram Mitzna, the mayor of Haifa.

Mr. Mitzna is set to campaign on a platform that Israel's best option is to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians, as early as possible. His city, Haifa, has more Arab residents than any other Israeli city, and it has a reputation for tolerance.

Analysts say any Labor candidate is likely to have a hard time selling Israeli voters on concessions for peace after the past two years of intense violence. Two events are seen as having shifted the Israeli electorate to the right. The first was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's rejection of an independent state at the failed peace summit at Camp David in July 2000. He was not satisfied with the conditions for statehood. The second was the start of the violence only two months later.

Still, Israeli pollster Hanoch Smith says the result of Israel's coming election is not predetermined, especially because of the high number of voters declaring themselves "undecided." "It's never over until it's over," he said. "I would say that the odds are on the Likud, but a lot of changes could take place. The Likud is well ahead now, there is no question about that."

Hanoch Smith says the current polls show the Likud getting 25 to 30 percent of the intended vote, nearly double what it received in the last parliamentary election in 1999.

Mr. Sharon came to power two years ago in a prime minister only election. Because of his party's small parliamentary delegation, he had to form a coalition, including his rivals from the Labor party.

The complicating issue this time is the higher number of "undecided voters," which is also projected at 25 to 30 percent.

At the same time, Mr. Smith agrees that the winner of the Likud ballot must be considered the front-runner to become prime minister.

His surveys show Mr. Sharon to be more popular than Mr. Netanyahu with the public as a whole. But it is not certain who is more popular within Likud. Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report magazine, says, if history is any guide, Mr. Sharon may come out in front. "The one thing that is kind of a constant in Israeli internal elections is that a sitting prime minister has never been defeated in an intra-party race," said Leslie Susser. "All challengers have always been deflected by a sitting prime minister, so that may be something to go on."

Another question on analysts' minds is, which man will find favor in the White House. Mr. Sharon has established a close public rapport with President Bush. But, in private, many in Washington are reported less enamored. Mr. Sharon has tested their patience by defying calls not to increase tension in the region, notably by demolishing most of Mr. Arafat's headquarters last month. Although both men are of the right, one senior U.S. official hinted that Mr. Netanyahu's record of compromising hardline positions once in office could make him easier to work with. The official, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Netanyahu is less predictable, but more malleable than Mr. Sharon.