JERUSALEM, Jan. 6 (JTA) — Former Israeli army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak came out swinging as he launched his bid for prime minister this week. Speaking at a Tel Aviv news conference Wednesday where he announced his anticipated candidacy, Shahak charged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with bringing Israel to the brink of disaster. Shahak called Netanyahu a “danger to Israel” and said the premier is ignoring the pressing problems confronting Israel for his own political interests. Shahak, who hopes to head a centrist party, was more conciliatory in his remarks about opposition leader Ehud Barak, whom he succeeded as army chief of staff. Last month Shahak rejected Barak’s invitation to join the Labor Party — a move that some observers said could split the moderate vote and work in Netanyahu’s favor. While describing Barak as “totally capable,” he said the Labor leadership is disconnected from the Israeli public and is “entrenched in the 1950s.” The sharp rhetoric immediately put the leaders of Israel’s established political parties on the defensive as the campaign for the May 17 election shifted into high gear. Even before Shahak formally doffed his uniform after a military career that spanned more than three decades, he led in the polls. Shahak told reporters that the two largest parties, Labor and Likud, no longer represent the Israeli public and that he is offering to lead the way toward national reconciliation and unity. “In the next election, the choice is clear — between change and national reconciliation or a deepening of the internal war that can bring us to disaster,” said Shahak. During his news conference, he gave voters a taste of his centrist position, saying Jerusalem is indisputably the united capital of Israel, but adding that he would not rule out the creation of a Palestinian state. He also spoke of a possible compromise on returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Israeli troops could only be withdrawn from southern Lebanon after an agreement is reached with Damascus, he added. Shahak’s speech drew immediate criticism from both sides of the political divide, with the Labor Party branding him a political novice and Netanyahu saying his comments “border on incitement.” “He decided to open his campaign stressing hate and division, while at the same time, avoiding taking a stand on the main issues,” said Health Minister Yehoshua Matza of Likud. Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin termed Shahak a “parody of a politician who wants to be elected.” He said Shahak is a weak imitation of Barak — adding that he preferred the original. “If he really wants to defeat Netanyahu, he must give Barak chance,” Beilin said. Leah Rabin, the widow of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — under whom Shahak served as deputy army chief of staff — said she regretted Shahak’s decision not to join forces with Barak. Shahak had hoped to launch his campaign with a strong lineup of other leading political figures committed to running on a new, centrist party list for the May 17 elections. But he has yet to work out his differences with Knesset member Dan Meridor, a former minister in the Netanyahu government who left the Likud to announce his own centrist run for prime minister. “I had hoped that Dan Meridor and I would agree to work together from the start, and decide who would lead later on. Dan chose differently, and I respect that. However, I am certain that ultimately we will cooperate together,” Shahak said. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai is also said to be considering bolting Likud to join the centrist party, but has not yet made any decision.