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World - Middle East

Charismatic Israeli general joins race for prime minister

Lipkin-Shahak says he hopes to reunite an Israel divided by Netanyahu
CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers has more on Netanyahu's new challenger
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Amnon Lipkin-Shahak calls Netanyahu 'dangerous for Israel'

January 6, 1999
Web posted at: 8:43 p.m. EST (0143 GMT)

In this story:

TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "dangerous for Israel," a charismatic former army chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, announced Wednesday that he will run for prime minister in the May 17 national election.

A self-described centrist who has not previously held elected office, Lipkin-Shahak's candidacy had been anticipated for months in the rough-and-tumble world of Israeli politics. Earlier polls had even shown him beating Netanyahu, though surveys have seen his support decline somewhat in recent weeks.

During a news conference, Netanyahu removes his bulletproof jacket to symbolize he has nothing to fear  

Lipkin-Shahak, who resigned as army chief of staff a month ago, becomes the 11th candidate in an increasingly crowded race. Among them is Lipkin-Shahak's immediate predecessor as head of the army, Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party.

Lipkin-Shahak: 'Divisions have turned to hatred'

In a news conference announcing his candidacy, Lipkin-Shahak rapped Netanyahu for the increasing rifts within Israeli society.

"How did hope become so distant? In the past two-and-a-half years since Mr. Netanyahu was elected, the divisions have turned to hatred," he said.

"Secular vs. religious, veteran Israelis vs. immigrants, Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim, right vs. left -- a country at war, at war with itself, a domestic war that could lead to a disaster if we don't prevent it in time," he said.

(Ashkenazim refers to Jews of northern European ancestry; Sephardim, to Jews who emigrated to Israel from northern Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East.)

In response, Netanyahu's office released a sharply worded statement: "The prime minister heard with pain and disappointment that Amnon Lipkin-Shahak opened his election campaign with a blatant personal attack, instead of presenting his political positions, if he has any."

Indeed, the perception that Lipkin-Shahak doesn't have firm plans to deal with the country's most pressing problems is seen as the cause of his recent drop in the polls. So Wednesday, the political rookie gave more detailed policy pronouncements.

Palestinian state inevitable, Lipkin-Shahak says

Lipkin-Shahak indicated that he thinks a Palestinian state is inevitable, though he urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat not to declare a state unilaterally. He called for a continuation of negotiations with the Palestinians.

"We're halfway down the road. We cannot stop at the point that we are at now. The solution is far away and the pending issues are not simple," he said.

Lipkin-Shahak also said that he opposes a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from its occupation zone in southern Lebanon. But he said that the only way to solve the impasse in Lebanon is with the cooperation of Syria, which remains a power in Lebanon.

He said that may mean relinquishing part of the Golan Heights captured from Syria.

"I believe that there will be no peace with Syria if there (is) no compromise in the Golan Heights. It will be part of the dialogue, no doubt about it," he said. "All Israelis fully understand that a compromise is part of a peace agreement with Syria."

In the administration of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Lipkin-Shahak, as army chief of staff, played a key role in negotiating with the Palestinians, winning the respect of many senior Palestinian officials.

But as a young military officer, he was at the forefront of Israel's battle against Palestinian guerrillas, and in the 1970s, he commanded a daring raid of the Beirut headquarters of a radical PLO faction.

In addition to Lipkin-Shahak, Netanyahu and Barak, the list of prime minister hopefuls also includes Benny Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Dan Meridor, a centrist lawmaker and Netanyahu's former finance minister.

Uzi Landau, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party, is challenging the prime minister in the party's primary prior to the general election.

In the Israeli system, prime ministers are directly elected by voters, rather than chosen by the parliamentary majority.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers and Reuters contributed to this report.

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