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World - Middle East

Netanyahu lobbies for support as Likud Party sets primary

December 27, 1998
Web posted at: 10:29 p.m. EST (0329 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Likud Party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting Sunday to set a date for its primary ahead of next year's general election.

Meanwhile, Uzi Landau, a hard-line Likud ideologue, announced he will challenge Netanyahu for the party's leadership.

The pressure is on Netanyahu, who called off his cabinet's regular weekly meeting to devote himself to politicking within his troubled right-wing party.

Israel's Knesset voted last week to move elections from late 2000 to early 1999 after Netanyahu lost the support of right-wingers who felt he had betrayed them by agreeing to cede West Bank land in a peace deal with the Palestinians.

But the prime minister, at least in public, maintained an optimistic outlook.

"I have no doubt that 150,000 members of the Likud will give me the mandate to continue to lead the country," he said.

Landau: 'Let's make a change'

As Landau announced Sunday that he would challenge Netanyahu, he was flanked by former prime minister Yitshak Shamir, who has charged Netanyahu with blowing the Likud apart.

"When I see the injustice today at the Likud ... I feel the need to stop, to make the change," Landau said. "I face today Mr. Netanyahu as equal, and say to my friends at the Likud, 'Let's make a change, let's go back to the root.'"

Netanyahu did get some bright news on the election front. The popular Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert announced he won't join the direct race to topple the prime minister.

But a bigger, and for Netanyahu potentially more dangerous question remains: what his highly respected defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, will do.

"If Mordechai declares himself a candidate, that would be another blow to Netanyahu," said Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University. "But I think Netanyahu has weathered these kinds of defections before."

Even if Netanyahu holds on to the Likud party, more challenges are likely to come from several directions. Besides Labor Party and centrist candidates, some worry hard-liners from within the Likud could break away to challenge Netanyahu independently.

"Likud does not provide Netanyahu with a power base," Steinberg said. "What he's got to do is beyond that.

Correspondent Jerrold Kessel contributed to this report.


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