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With Netanyahu Gone, Likud Party Looks for New Direction, Leadership

The Israeli elections have left the Likud a fractious, disillusioned party, attempting to chart a future course.

The party’s prime ideological underpinning — a historical refusal to turn over any of Greater Israel as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians — was overturned when outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made several such land transfers during his tenure.

And what remains of its ideology may become further undermined if the party joins a coalition with Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak.

Furthermore, the party has been without a leader since Netanyahu resigned the post within 30 minutes after it became clear that he had suffered a major defeat at Barak’s hands.

This week, Netanyahu went a step further by resigning his Knesset seat.

Addressing a stormy meeting Thursday of the Likud Party’s Central Committee, where some 500 party members were was still reeling from their loss of 13 seats in last week’s Knesset race, Netanyahu made the announcement while grim-faced members of the party leadership looked on.

Despite the announcement, Netanyahu left the door open to a possible return to politics some day.

“I’m leaving the Knesset, but under no circumstances am I retiring from the battle over the future of my country,” he said.

Netanyahu, who had been visibly moved when party members sang his name for more than five minutes after he entered the conference hall, added that the country is in better shape than when he had become prime minister three years ago.

Netanyahu made no explicit reference to the exploratory coalition contacts the Likud is currently engaged in with Barak’s negotiating team.

But he did say that the impending political debate over the peace process should not take place in the same overheated atmosphere that has often prevailed among Israelis in recent years.

“An intense debate over the way to achieve peace awaits us, I have no doubt,” he said. “But this debate must be held in a different way, through mutual respect, listening, and primarily through understanding that there are no separate fates for the right wing and the left wing.

“We are all brothers, and the shared Jewish destiny is one.”

Earlier in the week, aides to the premier said Netanyahu has numerous offers to make lecture appearances and has a standing offer to write a book about his years in office.

During Thursday’s meeting, the committee confirmed outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon as its acting head until party primaries are held.

Sharon declared he has no intention of extending his interim status beyond the 90 days called for under the party constitution.

During his speech, Sharon blamed internal divisions for the party’s poor showing last week.

“We must remember — a united Likud wins,” he said.

When some activists tried to heckle him, Sharon berated them.

“Sit down,” he said. “We won’t have that here. Not anymore.”

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