JERUSALEM, Dec. 29 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, forced to accede to early elections, embarked this week on a daunting struggle to recapture the popular and political appeal that catapulted him to the national leadership less than three years ago. The struggle will be long: Netanyahu and the Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, agreed on a 4«-month campaign, with the election set for Monday, May 17. If there is a runoff in the race for prime minister, as is widely expected, it will take place June 1. The struggle will also be difficult: Netanyahu is already trailing in the polls behind Barak and both of the two men likely to head a centrist party — Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Dan Meridor. And Netanyahu”s Likud Party has been weakened by defections. After Meridor”s announcement last week that he would leave to mount a challenge from the center, Ze”ev “Benny” Begin made his own announcement on Monday. The son of the late founder and longtime leader of the Likud, Menachem Begin, said he would form a new, right-wing bloc and run for the prime ministership at its head. Two other popular Likud figures, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Communications Minister Limor Livnat, went public this week with their separate soul-searchings over whether to quit the Likud and seek safe havens in the emerging centrist grouping. But Netanyahu is a fighter. Even those who malign him do not deny that. He came from way behind in 1996, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, to snatch the prime ministership that Rabin”s successor, Shimon Peres, thought was firmly in his grasp. And Netanyahu is the sitting tenant. The dual persona of underdog and incumbent is, in the view of some pros, the optimal starting point for a tough election campaign. As prime minister, with four long months at his disposal, Netanyahu can still pull an ace or two from his sleeve — and all the other wannabes are undisguisedly anxious at this prospect. So, for instance, when military officials announced Tuesday that the South Lebanon Army, Israel”s surrogate force just across the border, would be evacuating two positions near the town of Jezzine, a wave of speculation swept the political community: Was this the start of a unilateral withdrawal by the Israel Defense Forces from the security zone in southern Lebanon? Fueling the speculation was a decision by the premier to meet with a group of bereaved mothers who have been demonstrating in Jerusalem to demand new government thinking on the Lebanon quagmire. Israel”s accidental killing last week of a mother and six of her children in an artillery barrage, and Hezbollah”s subsequent Katyusha rocket barrage against the Israeli border communities of Kiryat Shmona and Kfar Blum have once again pushed southern Lebanon to the top of the public”s concerns. There can be little doubt that a decision by the government to withdraw would be widely welcomed. The public has been divided until now over the wisdom of a unilateral pullback. Many people accept the official wisdom that to withdraw without a negotiated deal with the Syrians would be merely to invite the Hezbollah to take up positions along the border fence and resume its rocketing attacks from there. But if the official line were to shift toward the unilateral withdrawal option, a good deal of public opinion would certainly shift with it. The politicians crowding the center have been heard voicing apprehensions, too, that Netanyahu, despite his presently hawkish posture, may find a way, during the next four months, to make a breakthrough in the peace process with the Palestinians. Certainly, that prospect has not seemed likely in his initial campaigning. In a speech Sunday night to the Likud Central Committee in Tel Aviv, the premier tongue-lashed both Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Labor leader Barak, whom he accused of being prepared to make far-reaching concessions. But with Benny Begin preparing to attack him from the hard-line right, and with the Oslo accords demonstrably still supported by a substantial majority of Israelis, Netanyahu might yet tack to the left (or, more accurately, to the center) as the campaign moves ahead, seeking to undercut both Barak and Shahak. Another scenario bandied about in these frenetic times has Netanyahu launching a military action, in Lebanon or elsewhere, with at least a passing thought to the electoral benefits this could bring him. On the domestic front, Netanyahu”s calculation in engineering a long campaign seems to have been that Shahak — who retired earlier this year as IDF chief of staff and is currently the front-runner in the polls — will inevitably lose ground as he moves away from the glow of his military past and is exposed to the hurly-burly of a campaign. This is presumed to be the reason why Barak — who is even more directly threatened by Shahak — went along with the prime minister on selecting a distant date for the election. By law, the election could have been held after 60 days, or as early as the end of February. Netanyahu probably reasons, too, that once the Likud leadership race and candidate-selection process have been completed, during January, the tensions tearing at the party will subside, and the scars left by defections to the center or to the right will start to heal. With only Knesset member Uzi Landau so far having declared his candidacy for the Likud leadership — Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert toyed with the idea but dropped it — Netanyahu is confident of his standing inside the party. He feels that once re-endorsed, he will be able to reinvigorate the rank and file with the appetite to win. The challenge he faces, however, is daunting, chiefly because it comes from both sides. To his left, the much-respected Meridor, a close confidant of the late Menachem Begin and later of Yitzhak Shamir, is determined to deny Netanyahu the premiership. In his candidacy speech at a packed news conference, Meridor pulled no punches in railing against the premier”s culture of government: his all-things-to-all-men relationship to the truth, and his power-politics relationship to his Cabinet and his party colleagues. Begin, at his news conference, was no less disparaging toward the prime minister”s credibility. Both men, universally upheld as honest and honorable, both with long and intimate experience of work alongside prime ministers, asserted that Netanyahu is not the man for the job. And both plainly intend to keep on saying so throughout the campaign. This will be damaging indeed for the prime minister. His efforts last week to dismiss Meridor as a “leftist” and a “careerist”” exploded in his face, as longtime Likud stalwarts lined up to excoriate Netanyahu and extol the former finance minister, whom the premier drove from his Cabinet a year ago. Netanyahu would not dare insult Begin, who carries his father”s name and prestige. While many of the pieces in the newly evolving Israeli political jigsaw are not yet in place, the election campaign is shaping up as a bruising battle between a beleaguered Netanyahu and foes from left and right that are united in their determination to dislodge him. The fact that among those foes are two of his own party”s former favorite sons makes Netanyahu”s task doubly hard.