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NEWS ANALYSIS Election contenders in Israel already redrawing political map

JERUSALEM, Dec. 22 (JTA) — The Knesset’s dramatic decision to call for early elections is quickly leading to a reshaping of Israel’s political map. One day after the Knesset vote, a new, centrist political party and several potential candidates have emerged to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As a result of a potential onslaught from the right, left and center, the premier will have to define his own political turf carefully as what promises to be a raucous political campaign unfolds. The peace process with the Palestinians has become the prime issue around which the various competing political forces are shaping themselves. On the far right, there is much suspicion of the premier. Though Netanyahu has indeed talked tough to the Palestinian side, he nevertheless became the first Likud leader to cede portions of the Land of Israel to the self-rule government. Some prominent voices in the settlers movement and the National Religious Party are openly calling for the creation of a new nationalist movement, unsullied by compromises, with a new leader at its helm to run against Netanyahu and what they perceive as his zig-zagging policies. Knesset member Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, briefly a minister under Netanyahu and now one of his most outspoken foes, indicated Tuesday that he is seriously weighing the option of declaring his candidacy. Meanwhile, a new political center is emerging as an alternative to the hard-liners and the doves — and several politicians appear eager to stake it out: * Knesset member Dan Meridor — another of the premier’s former ministers, who represents the moderate wing of the Likud Party — announced Tuesday that he would run for prime minister as the head of the new, centrist party. Meridor, who resigned as finance minister in June 1997 after losing a power struggle with Netanyahu, was an aide and intimate of the late Likud founder, Menachem Begin, and his successor, Yitzhak Shamir. He accuses Netanyahu of using unprincipled power politics to run the party and the country. * Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the recently retired army chief of staff, is expected to announce his candidacy soon, after having declined offers from the Labor Party to join its ranks. Shahak has consistently made a strong showing in the opinion polls and is likely to appeal the crucial middle-of-the-road voter. Shahak would defeat Netanyahu in a one-on-one race for the Israeli premiership if the election were held today, according to a poll conducted for the Yediot Achronot newspaper. * Roni Milo, the former mayor of Tel Aviv and Likud Cabinet minister is also joining the crowded battle for the center. Since announcing his candidacy, he has been raising money at home and abroad to finance his campaign. * Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, also a former army chief of staff, is casting himself as a centrist on matters pertaining to the peace process. Carefully distancing himself from Labor’s left wing and from its ally, the Meretz Party, Barak refuses to explicitly endorse Palestinian aspirations for statehood and backs Netanyahu’s refusal to release Palestinian political prisoners with blood on their hands. At the same time, Barak is taking outspokenly leftist positions on matters of social policy. Getting his campaign into full swing this week, he charged that Netanyahu has been earmarking funds for settlement expansion at the expense of education, welfare programs and employment. As though he did not have enough candidates to contend with, Netanyahu may also face a challenge for the leadership of Likud. People like Limor Livnat, the popular communications minister, and Uzi Landau, the hard-line chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, are being touted as possible challengers to the prime minister from within his own party. There are two other Likud figures who may also jump in: Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. In order to beat all the other candidates — and this is a point that Netanyahu himself frequently makes to his advisers — the premier must not lose his political base: the Likud and its religious and nationalist allies. But even among his supporters, he is plagued by the perception that throughout his 30 months in office he has repeatedly shifted his stance on the peace process. A case in point: On Monday, sources close to Netanyahu said that if the Knesset voted for early elections, the peace process with the Palestinians would be put on hold for the duration of the election campaign. Netanyahu adopted this position to win over hard-liners before the Knesset voted for early elections. A day later, after the vote, the prime minister said he would implement the Wye accord, even during the election period, as long as the Palestinian Authority lived up to a series of conditions. With the election campaign under way, Netanyahu had switched course and was steering for the center. Granted, his professed readiness to implement Wye was still hedged by his list of conditions. But the whole tone and tenor of his statement was now positive. Netanyahu apparently had his eye on the 80 percent of Israelis who, in poll after poll, voice their desire that the peace process with the Palestinians go forward. This shifting stance has typified his policy on the peace process. To his detractors, from the right and from the left, it is pure opportunism. But he describes it as pure consistency — a consistent readiness to move ahead on the peace process, despite the hard-liners in his coalition; but also a consistent toughness in negotiating, which he insists was not displayed by his political opponents when they held power. He will now have to convince the Israeli public of this consistency. As all the politicians and parties jostle for position at the starting gate, one thing is certain: The campaign will become more frenetic and unpredictable by the time they reach the finish line. Israel, after all, has never had an election in which the prime minister was elected in a second-round run-off, which is likely to be the case this time, given the plethora of would-be candidates. No one is really sure how the voters are likely to behave.

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