Page last updated at 06:33 GMT, Sunday, 14 September 2008 07:33 UK

Israeli fears boost opposition Likud

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

As Israel's ruling centrist Kadima party prepares for leadership elections on Wednesday, the opposition centre-right Likud is riding high in the polls.

Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu shakes hands with supporter Kobi Torgman
Kobi Torgman (r) says Binyamin Netanyahu deserves a second chance

The Likud party is in buoyant mood as its members gather under the mirrors and gaudy lights of a seaside wedding hall in the city of Ashdod.

As a rousing party song blares to welcome the party's leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, salesman Kobi Torgman, 33, says he has "come home".

Like many of those gathered to welcome Mr Netanyahu, he deserted the main party of the Israeli right to help bring the more centrist Kadima party to power in 2006.

But now, with elections on the cards again, he says he has been "disappointed big time" by Kadima and it is time to give Bibi, as Mr Netanyahu is popularly known, a second chance.

Disengagement divide

The Kadima party was formed nearly three years ago when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split from Likud in what has been described as a "big bang" of Israeli politics.

Jojo Abutbol, Ashdod resident and chat show host
Not only have we forgiven Bibi, we have realised we were wrong
Jojo Abutbol
Ashdod resident and chat show host

The issue that tore Likud apart was Mr Sharon's plan to withdraw, or "disengage", Israeli troops and settlers, first from the Gaza Strip, and then from parts of the West Bank.

It was an abrupt U-turn from a man who had urged Israelis to "settle every hilltop".

Mr Netanyahu, who himself has served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, resigned as finance minister in protest.

But Mr Torgman says he, like many Likudniks, was a big fan of Mr Sharon and followed him to the new party.

Deserted by core, lower-income Likud voters over welfare cuts he had imposed, Mr Netanyahu led the remnant of the party to a bruising fourth place in the 2006 vote count.

'Punch in the face'

But three years later, the picture is very different.

"If we got a slap from Netanyahu, we got a punch in the face from Kadima," says Jojo Abutbol, a local resident and chat show host, who also plans to return to the Likud fold.

Feb 2001: Ariel Sharon elected prime minister
Aug-Sept 2005: Withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, Binyamin Netanyahu resigns as finance minister
Nov 2005: Sharon resigns from Likud and forms Kadima
Dec 2005: Binyamin Netanyahu elected Likud leader
Jan 2006: Sharon suffers major stroke, Ehud Olmert becomes caretaker PM
March 2006: Kadima wins elections and later forms coalition with Labour
May 2007: Report criticises Olmert's handling of war. Calls for resignation.
July 2008: Facing corruption probe, Olmert announces plans to step down

"Not only have we forgiven Bibi, we have realised we were wrong - what is 4% off welfare compared to the way things have deteriorated?"

Disengagement in now mentioned little. The vacated Gaza Strip is controlled by the militant group Hamas and has been used to launch hundreds of missiles at Israeli towns.

Mr Sharon lies in a coma after a massive stroke. His successor, Ehud Olmert, was heavily criticised for his handling of the 2006 war with Lebanon and is due to step down amid multiple corruption investigations.

Early general elections look likely if the new leader that Kadima is due to choose is unable to form a stable coalition.

For much of the summer Mr Netanyahu has been leading in the polls, although one of the Kadima leadership hopefuls, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has recently narrowed the gap.

Disillusionment vote

While Kadima is embroiled in peace talks with the Palestinians, Likud says it will wait until there is a stronger negotiating partner on the other side and try to boost the West Bank economy in the meantime.

Analysts such as Gideon Doron, who teaches Political Science at Tel Aviv University, say the second Palestinian uprising, the 2006 Lebanon war and rising concerns over a potentially nuclear Iran have led to a general shift among voters towards parties perceived as tough on security.

Nissim Chaviv, former Gaza settler
No one speaks for us now
Nissim Chaviv
Former Gaza settler
However, as Mr Doron points out, often in Israel, "we don't vote for, we vote against".

Many analysts attributed Kadima's success to disillusionment with the traditional parties, and now argue that disappointment with Kadima and its coalition partner Labour, has contributed to Mr Netanyahu's recovery.

The buoyant Israeli economy is also helping, vindicating the tough reforms he made as finance minister.

Mr Netanyahu has been working to overturn perceptions among some that he is arrogant and incapable, saying he has learned from his past "mistakes" and drawing new blood into the party, which stresses it is centre-right, not right-wing.

And personality matters less in security-conscious Israel than elsewhere, says Gil Hoffman, a political analyst at the Jerusalem Post:

"Who says the prime minister has to be a saint? People in Israel want someone with experience, even if they are uncouth, slovenly and can barely complete a sentence."

'Not dreaming anymore'

However, many Israelis say there is now little to choose between the three biggest parties as the battle is increasingly focused on the centre.

"People are not dreaming anymore, they became realistic on both ends of the political spectrum," says Avraham Diskin, a veteran political commentator based at the Hebrew University. "People moved to the centre because they became realistic."

But there are also those left politically isolated by the dash to the centre-right.

Only 15 minutes drive from Ashdod, Nitzan is home to many of the people whose fate was at the heart of the Likud-Kadima division.

Row after row of prefabricated homes dubbed "caravillas" house mainly right-wing settlers who were removed from Gaza.

Some, such as Dan Zaerbiv, 29, voted for Likud in the past, for the "old", pre-disengagement Ariel Sharon, but, unimpressed with Mr Netanyahu, plan no political homecoming to the party.

"There is now not really a clear left or right, just different shades of centre," he says.

Or, as engineering student Nissim Chaviv, 26, puts it: "No one speaks for us now."

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