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Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK

Where now for Likud?

There was even talk of a coalition with the ultra-orthodox Shas party to help Likud's cause

The Likud party is facing a protracted and difficult rebuilding process in the wake of its devastating defeat in the country's general election.

Israel Elections Special Report
Not only was Binyamin Netanyahu ejected from office by Labour's Ehud Barak, his party lost a massive 13 Knesset seats.

The ultra-orthodox right-wing Shas party made dramatic gains, taking 17 of the 120 seats - just two behind Likud.

While few Likud leaders have made public pronouncements other than to praise their resolutely-defeated leader, Israeli newspaper commentators are reporting that senior Likud members are privately pinning the blame on Mr Netanyahu for the meltdown at the polls.

Today's conventional wisdom says the media-savvy Mr Netanyahu was too slick for the Israeli people who have turned back to the old-style Israeli politician - a solid, no-frills military man.

Leadership race

Senior Likud figures are also now positioning themselves for the coming succession.

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In a speech which may herald his own candidature, foreign minister Ariel Sharon said that the party had been "fighting for a path, and our path is the right one for the future and security of Israel. I am convinced that this path will in the end be victorious".

Outgoing finance minister Meir Sheetrit has become the first Likud member to announce he would stand for the leadership, but many of the figures expected to run has so far refused to comment.

Other possible candidates waiting in the wings include Communications Minister Limor Livnat, Silvan Shalom and the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert.

The aftermath

While supporters of Mr Netanyahu called on him to remain as leader, senior party figures called for members to examine what had gone wrong.

Yossi Katz, elected to the Knesset, said: "I think most people were surprised. (The prime minister) drew the right conclusions and took personal responsibility. And we must respect him for that."

He added: "The Likud must repair itself, choose a new leader, and proceed on its principles that were a bit neglected when we were in power," he added.

National unity

While the election results and Mr Netanyahu's resignation may prompt a long period of soul searching for Likud, there is speculation that his decision to remove himself from national politics is aimed at ensuring the party can enter a government of national unity.

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In the run up to the poll, commentators predicted that whichever of the two candidates won the election, they would only be able to govern effectively if they formed a broad coalition to create consensus on completing the peace process, pulling out of Lebanon and reforming Israeli society.

Mr Barak has already called for that broad coalition. The inclusion of Likud members would allow the new premier to exclude the same religious parties that paralysed the Netanyahu administration.

But while that may give some short-term comfort to the party's wounded pride, the internal battle may not be as easy to resolve.

Michael Eitan, a senior Likud figure, said: "The Likud leadership refused to see the writing on the wall. It gave up its path to Shas."

Akiva Eldar, political commentator for the Ha'aretz newspaper, said: "This has brought Likud to where it was more than 20 years ago when Menachem Begin was a marginal leader of the opposition.

"I think that what happened is that Shas became the new Likud. And it will take some time not only for the Likud but for the right-wing coalition to rebuild itself."

Mr Eldar added: "I don't see many people sparing too many tears for Mr Netanyahu in the Likud. I think he has managed to build so much antagonism against him, so many enemies in the Likud itself on promises he did not keep."

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