- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel’s right wing found itself searching for a leader and a program yesterday after the shock of Tuesday’s elections, in which the long-dominant Likud Party was reduced to one of several minor parliamentary factions.

Calls are being heard for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be replaced as leader of Likud amid charges that he has alienated moderate voters from the nation’s most dominant party of the past 30 years.

Rising as a new champion of the right is Avigdor Lieberman, whose party of Russian immigrants, Yisrael Beiteinu, finished with 11 seats to Likud’s 12 in the final results, which were announced yesterday.

The centrist Kadima party of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert finished with 29 seats, one more than previously reported.

Although Mr. Olmert will cast the elections as a mandate for his plan to settle Israel’s final borders within four years, the larger story for many is the fragmentation of the right triggered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and later to leave Likud.

“After Sharon’s resignation, the Likud found itself as an extremist right-wing party on two levels — on the diplomatic level and on the socioeconomic level,” said Danny Naveh, one of the few returning Likud legislators, in an interview with Israel Radio.

For the first time in its history, Likud has lost its claim of being the natural home for the Israeli right, which is splintered among Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and an alliance of smaller settler-dominated parties that took nine seats.

The relative parity has prompted some to call for the three nationalist parties to join forces in a bloc that would control 32 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

“I hope they will be wise enough to unite, but I don’t see it happening,” said Shaul Goldstein, a member of the Jewish settler council in the West Bank.

Mr. Goldstein said he thought Mr. Lieberman should become the right’s new leader, arguing that Likud represents the “soft right” while the settler alliance isn’t connected with the broader Israeli public.

“Each of the right-wing parties is an ideological world unto itself,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute. “It is an illusion today to talk about the Israeli right as one entity.”

Mr. Halevi said that both Likud and Mr. Lieberman would support withdrawing from the West Bank under certain circumstances — something that traditionally would have been unimaginable for a right-wing Israeli party.

“There’s only one truly right-wing party left in Israel, and that’s the National Union-National Religious Party coalition,” he said. The setter party, he added, “electorally isn’t worth very much.”

Mr. Netanyahu worked during the campaign to win back moderately conservative voters from the Kadima party, opening himself to criticism from the settler alliance, which ran under the slogan “A new right is on the rise.” The settlers charged that Likud and Mr. Netanyahu had not done enough to prevent the withdrawal last year from the Gaza Strip.

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