JERUSALEM, Dec. 28 (JTA) — A former member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet has announced plans to quit the Likud Party and spearhead a right-wing challenge to the premier. Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, who resigned as science minister in 1997 when Netanyahu agreed to turn over most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule, could weaken the premier in the May 17 elections by splitting the right-wing vote. Announcing his candidacy at a news conference Monday, Begin said the national camp needed a candidate who would protect its interests. A geologist by training, Begin, 55, has represented the Likud in the Knesset since entering politics a decade ago. The son of Likud founder Menachem Begin used the news conference to attack Netanyahu and his continuation of the Oslo peace process. Begin said his candidacy is the “only alternative today to a way that would most certainly lead to the establishment of a PLO-and-Hamas state, which will bring neither peace nor security.” Begin, whose father forged Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, a move that included Israel’s return of the Sinai, warned that going down “Wye River” would only lead to ceding more land to “those hoodlums” — a reference to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Right-wing reaction to Begin’s announced candidacy was mixed. Some leaders of the settler movement welcomed Begin’s move. Others, including National Religious Party leader Yitzhak Levy, said it could split the right wing and play into the interests of the left. With at least five people so far expected to try to unseat Netanyahu in the upcoming elections, it appears unlikely that any candidate will gain 50 percent in the first round of voting. Begin was the second former member of Netanyahu’s Cabinet to announce his candidacy. Last week, after the Knesset approved, in the first of three votes, a bill to bring elections forward from the year 2000, former Finance Minister Dan Meridor announced he would run for premier as a centrist candidate. The decision to dissolve Parliament and advance the date for elections came after far-right coalition members, angered by the government’s land-for-security deal with the Palestinians, joined forces with opposition legislators who were frustrated with the freeze in the peace process. Other contenders in the race for prime minister are opposition leader Ehud Barak; former army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who has yet to formally declare but is expected to run on a centrist platform; and Uzi Landau, the hawkish chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who announced this week he would challenge Netanyahu for the Likud leadership. Netanyahu sought this week to rally the Likud rank and file around him, giving a fiery speech before the Likud Central Committee that was meant to appeal to hawkish sensitivities. He said the “real task is not the election,” but what will come after, when Israel will have to negotiate with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese. “It will not be easy,” Netanyahu said, adding that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is “talking about a Palestinian state along the lines of 1967, perhaps even a Palestinian state along the borders of 1947, with partition lines and the right of return to areas within the Green Line.” To counter the talk about those who were defecting from the Likud to run against him, Netanyahu singled out those assembled on the stage beside him, including Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. But Mordechai, who is rumored to be considering a defection, would not confirm Monday that his presence at the Likud Central Committee meeting was a sign of his intention to remain within the party.
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