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Herut Party Catapults Netanyahu, Begin to Top of Its Knesset List

The Herut Central Committee propelled two young party activists to the forefront of the party in the first round of balloting for the party’s election slate of Knesset members.

Benjamin Netanyahu, a career diplomat and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, took the No. 1 spot with 1,408 votes from the 2,000-plus member Central Committee. Benjamin Zeev Begin, son of former Premier Menachem Begin, won third place with 1,233 votes.

The final vote tally was announced at 3 a.m. Thursday morning.

Begin was edged out for second place by Moshe Katsav, the minister of labor and social affairs, who received 1,324 votes.

Netanyahu resigned in April as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and announced he would seek election to the Knesset. Begin, a scientist by profession, has never held political office.

The three front-runners were followed by Moshe Arens, David Levy and Ariel Sharon, in that order, all of them possible successors to Premier Yitzhak Shamir.

The Central Committee will meet again next week for the second and decisive round of balloting. At stake will be the ranking of the party’s 35 Knesset candidates on the list to be presented to the voters in November.

The candidates will be selected in three groups of seven. Those who fail to be included in any of the groups will be ranked from numbers 23 to 35, on the basis of their performance in the first round of balloting.

Only one spot on the Herut list is reserved in advance, that of the party leader who is the prime ministerial candidate. Premier Yitzhak Shamir seems secure in that position.

Herut is the larger component of Likud. An agreed upon number of spots on the Likud list will be reserved for its Liberal Party wing, once the Herut list is finalized.

The Liberals expect at least 12 seats and threaten to break up the Likud bloc if they get any fewer. Many Herut people think this is unrealistic, considering their relatively small constituency.

Neutral observers believe that if the Liberals ran as a separate party they would win at most five or six Knesset seats. Their strength lies in the funds they can make available for the election campaign.

Political observers generally regard the outcome of the first round as a success for the Shamir-Arens camp in Herut. Arens, a minister without portfolio and former defense minister, has long been a Shamir loyalist.

The faction supportive of Minister of Commerce and Industry Ariel Sharon, also a former defense minister and potential challenger of Shamir, held its own, the pundits said.

But the camp of David Levy, the housing minister and a deputy premier, did poorly. Levy, who did not conceal his disappointment, cautioned reporters not to draw conclusions.

“We’ll meet again next week when we elect the sevens, then we’ll see,” he said.

The final round of balloting is most likely to favor the veteran Herut leaders and relegate the young blood to lesser positions in the party’s hierarchy. But the vote will be bitterly contested.

Arens, Sharon and Levy are expected to battle fiercely for the No. 1 spot that would amount to the party’s endorsement of one of them as Shamir’s eventual successor.

Arens, who is election campaign manager said after the voting Thursday the overall list was “excellent.” He said it balanced experience with new blood and offered the electorate candidates from different sections of society and different backgrounds.

The list contains no Arab or Druze and only two women — Limor Livnat, who placed 27th, and Miriam Glaser-Ta’asa, a Knesset incumbent who ranked No. 32.

Three Herut Knesset members failed to make the list. They are Deputy Defense Minister Michael Dekel, a close supporter of Shamir, Meir Cohen-Avidov of the Sharon camp, and Amal Nasser e-Din, a Druze who backs Levy.

Several other members decided not to stand for re-election. Among them are former Finance Minister Yoram Aridor, Yigal Cohen-Orgad and Meir Shitrit, recently elected treasurer of the Jewish Agency.

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