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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 March 2006, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
Israel's Likud falls from grace
By Martin Patience
BBC News website, Tel Aviv

A Likud Party supporter
It was a disappointing result for Likud Party supporters
For once, the Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu appeared lost for words.

The former Israeli prime minister's eyes darted through the convention centre as he stood in front of supporters and a small army of cameramen and photographers.

The once mighty Likud Party, the dominant force in Israeli politics for almost 30 years, had fallen to its knees.

"We have no doubt the Likud has suffered a tough blow," Mr Netanyahu told the crowd.

"I intend to continue along the path we have only just begun in order to ensure this movement is rehabilitated and takes its rightful place in the nation's leadership."

State of shock

A pall of stunned silence had descended on the group of about 200 supporters, before Mr Netanyahu's speech, when the initial election exit polls were announced on Israeli television.

The largest party in the last parliament, Likud was predicted to be in fourth place by the exit polls. Worse was to come in the actual count, when it slumped to fifth, just four seats ahead of Gil, a group advocating a better deal for old age pensioners.

Nobody anticipated a stellar election performance, but nobody expected this.

Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu
Binyamin Netanyahu's future is under question

One elderly woman, dressed in a black trouser suit, stood in the centre of the hall crying and dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

"I'm in a state of shock," said Yoram Eytan, 47, a campaign volunteer standing outside the circular hall drawing on a cigarette, his right hand visibly shaking.

"Right now, Likud supporters are trying to wake up from this bad dream. But from tomorrow, the knives will be out."

In fact, a brutal and unsparing political autopsy was almost immediately under way.

"This election result has sent us back 40 years," said Likud campaign manager Danny Danon, not trying to hide his disappointment.

Lost support

The Likud campaign came undone for several reasons.

Chief among them was Mr Netanyahu's stint as finance minister in the last government.

We didn't pay enough attention to the people
Reuven Rivlin
Likud MP

The 56-year-old pushed through swingeing benefit cuts that hurt Israel's poor working class, many of whom are natural Likud supporters.

"We didn't pay enough attention to the people," admitted Reuven Rivlin, a Likud parliamentarian.

Likud was also badly wounded by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to leave the party last year and form the new, centrist Kadima Party.

"We can't ignore that 10 minutes before the end of the football match, half our team left and started playing for the other side," said Mr Danon.

The party also lost substantial support to the hardline right-wing party Israel Beitenu, popular among Russian immigrants.

'Man of the past'

After leaving the rally, Mr Netanyahu was holed up in the Likud headquarters at the Jabotinsky building in central Tel Aviv until the early hours of the morning.

File photograph of Ariel Sharon voting in 2001
Ariel Sharon became Likud Party leader in 2001

Between sips of whisky and puffs of his cherished cigars on the building's 14th floor, Mr Netanyahu was telling close associates that he was not going to quit, said one senior Likud official.

But privately, some Likud supporters were already saying he must go.

"He ruined the party," said one party official. Another accused Mr Netanyahu of arrogance.

Throughout this election campaign, Likud posters had featured a slim, younger Mr Netanyahu - a picture of the politician when he was prime minister from 1996 to 1999.

But after coming in fifth place on election day, it seems that Binyamin Netanyahu, like his poster, is a man of the past.

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