- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

TEL AVIV — Exit polls last night gave Benjamin Netanyahu a victory in the Likud primary, returning the former prime minister to the leadership of a party in tatters after Ariel Sharon bolted last month to make a third-party run for parliament next March.

A survey by Israel Radio gave Mr. Netanyahu 47 percent of the vote and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom 32 percent. Two far-right candidates, Moshe Feiglin and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, won 15 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

If neither candidate were to garner more than 40 percent, the party would have to hold a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

Mr. Netanyahu’s apparent victory sets up a battle with Mr. Sharon for the center-right voters who made the Likud Israel’s ruling party for most of the past three decades.

Likud is running a distant third to Mr. Sharon’s breakaway Forward party and the left-wing Labor Party. But party loyalists insist that Likud will gain ground.

“Today, the Likud has turned a new page after a leader was chosen,” said Likud Knesset member Michael Ratzon, a supporter of Mr. Netanyahu. “For everyone eulogizing the Likud, I say, we’ll see at the end of the day.”

In 1996, Mr. Netanyahu barely defeated Shimon Peres for prime minister after trailing by double digits after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. But Mr. Netanyahu must unite a party still wounded after Mr. Sharon wooed away Likud’s brightest stars, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

The primary came as doctors at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center said they expected to release Mr. Sharon from medical surveillance today after he suffered a minor stroke on Sunday.

Hospital director Yair Birnbaum said Mr. Sharon suffered no brain damage and could return to his normal work schedule.

Analysts said, however, that Mr. Sharon’s stroke and his advanced age are likely to play to the advantage of Mr. Netanyahu and Labor leader Amir Peretz, both of whom are in their 50s.

To lure back Likud’s security-conscious constituency, Mr. Netanyahu is likely to criticize Mr. Sharon for the cross-border rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

Mr. Netanyahu is also likely to warn that the prime minister is liable to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, Mr. Lehman Wilzig said.

“It makes things a lot clearer as to where the Likud stands,” he said. “Likud saves the right flank and loses the left flank.”

Mr. Netanyahu withdrew from Mr. Sharon’s government on the eve of the August pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Shalom, who backed Mr. Sharon on the pullout, argued in his primary campaign that he would do a better job at appealing to Likud voters who are likely to support Mr. Sharon’s new party in the March 28 vote.

But party critics charged that Mr. Shalom’s alliance with the prime minister would blur the distinction between Likud and Mr. Sharon’s Forward party come election day, leaving voters little compelling reason to stay with Likud.

The harshest criticism of Mr. Netanyahu came from his old Likud colleagues, who warned that the truncated party would be cut off from Israel’s political center.

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