News Analysis: Netanyahu Strives for Party Unity in Bid to Unseat Labor Government

Benjamin Netanyahu has handily defeated more seasoned rivals to win the chairmanship of the opposition Likud party.

But how far he gets in accomplishing his equally ambitious goal of unseating the Labor government will depend on his ability to unite his own fractured party and on the government’s success in coping with the mounting challenges of Palestinian violence, the Middle East peace process and high unemployment.

In his drive to become Israel’s next prime minister, Netanyahu has already moved on both fronts — by starting a process of reconciliation with his losing rivals in the Likud party primary and by launching fresh attacks on the Labor government’s policies.

Netanyahu, who was elected Likud chairman on March 24 with roughly 52 percent of the party members’ ballots, met Sunday with Maxim Levy, the brother of his chief rival, David Levy, in an apparent attempt to heal party divisions.

Netanyahu, popularly known as Bibi, emerged in good spirits from his meeting with Maxim Levy, who is mayor of Ramla, and pledged cooperation with “every element in our movement” to prepare for and fight the local mayoral battles later this year.

David Levy, who finished second in the Likud primary with 26 percent of the vote, has reiterated that he will not take a leadership position in a team created by Netanyahu.

But political observers saw the meeting with Maxim Levy — and the mayor’s own businesslike comments afterward — as a significant indicator that the recriminations between Netanyahu and David Levy would not be allowed to hamstring Likud’s efforts to move forward.

Maxim Levy said Netanyahu’s election, is a fact. “The fact that I am here to meet with him is also significant,” he said. “Both David and I feel a responsibility to the movement.”

“We have to gear up for the hard battles ahead over control of the local authorities,” he added.

LINGERING BITTERNESS OVER ‘BIBI-GATE’

Netanyahu, for his part, said he would continue a brisk series of meetings he has already begun with other key political figures.

Over the weekend, he conferred with Moshe Katsav, who came fourth in the leadership contest, with 6.5 percent of the vote, and with leaders of the other right-wing opposition parties: the National Religious Party, Tsomet and Moledet.

Netanyahu was also to meet Monday with Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, who drew 15 percent of the primary vote, and former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who chose not to run in the race.

“I intend to harness all the forces in our movement,” Netanyahu said. “I do not doubt I will enjoy full cooperation from everyone.”

Netanyahu also seeks a meeting with Levy.

Levy, however, refuses to cooperate with the new chairman unless Netanyahu apologizes for what Levy insists was a false accusation leveled at him during the muddled campaign scandal of “Bibi-gate.”

Although never naming him outright, Netanyahu accused Levy and his supporters of black mailing him over an extramarital affair he admits he was having.

The scandal over the affair continues to rumble on, threatening to dog the new leader.

On Sunday, a private investigator told army radio that Netanyahu had offered him $200,000 to $300,000 if he could prove the existence of a tape or video that Netanyahu claims was used in a blackmail attempt against him.

The private investigator said Netanyahu made the offer 10 days after lodging a police complaint.

Levy has charged that the police delayed announcing the results of their investigation into the blackmail attempt until after the primary. And unnamed political sources were quoted Sunday on Israel Radio as alleging a delay was ordered by the outgoing national police chief, Ya’acov Terner.

Such a postponement might have aided Netanyahu and hurt Levy, who demanded that Netanyahu step down if the police found nothing to suggest Levy’s supporters were behind the blackmail attempt.

GEARING UP FOR LOCAL ELECTIONS

Apart from internal Likud party politics, Netanyahu’s success will depend largely on the Labor government’s performance in fighting the current wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis, curbing unemployment and pushing forward the peace process.

Netanyahu already has started to turn his attacks away from his Likud rivals and toward the Labor government, telling the nation over the weekend that it must open a new debate on the questions of security and the Israel’s future borders.

Some observers here have suggested that the election of a new Likud leader will itself spur Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government into a more determined effort to make progress in the peace process.

Labor, for its part, seems to recognize that the government’s mediocre performance to date, coupled with the Likud’s injection of young blood at the top, could take a heavy toll in upcoming local elections.

Apparently in reaction to this fear, Labor has energetically scoured its ranks to find strong candidates for the main mayoral slots.

In Beersheba, Terner is expected to run against Likud incumbent Yitzhak Rager. And in Haifa, Labor has enlisted the just-retired popular army general Amram Mitzna.

In Jerusalem, the party has prevailed on octogenarian Mayor Teddy Kollek to run yet again, for fear of the capital falling to Likud candidate Ehud Olmert.

For the Tel Aviv mayorship, Labor will run Knesset member and war hero Avigdor Kahalani.

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