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Next Step : 4 Israelis Jostle to Lead Likud Out of Wilderness : The favorite is strong on self-confidence but shy on ideas to revive party.


JERUSALEM — Tired, divided and visionless after 15 years in power and its election defeat last June, Israel's Likud Party is trying to reshape itself with a new leader, a new image and a new political strategy with which it can challenge Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party.

The new leader will be chosen by Likud's 250,000 members in a partywide election Wednesday, and Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, 44, an American-educated, telegenic former diplomat, is likely to defeat all three rivals in a sweep he hopes will begin Likud's comeback.

"The country is on fire, the knife-wielders are running rampant in the streets," Netanyahu said in a televised debate last week. "In the face of such a government, such a failure, the question is who can replace it--and as quickly as possible.

"I am here. . . . I am the only one who can replace it, I am the only one who can return Likud to government."

"Napoleon!" snorted David Levy, 56, a longtime rival and one of the other candidates for the Likud leadership. Later, he called Netanyahu a "liar" and an "eel."

Zeev (Benny) Begin, 50, the son of the late Menachem Begin, who led Likud to power in 1977, warned that "a leadership devoid of content will not succeed," no matter how dynamic it appears. "Wonder solutions cannot succeed either," he added, no matter how well they are articulated.

But Netanyahu's victory is all but assured with opinion polls among Likud members showing him winning as much as 60% of the vote despite his televised confession of marital infidelity and accusations, apparently directed against Levy, of attempts to use the sexual liaison to blackmail him out of the race.

The only hope that Levy, Begin and Moshe Katsav, the fourth candidate, have is that, together, they can cut Netanyahu's share of the vote to less than 40% and thus force him into a runoff. In reality, they are competing not with Netanyahu but with each other for the No. 2 spot in the party leadership.

"Likud voters, as polls indicate, are about to bypass the middle generation of leadership in their party," Yoel Marcus, a liberal commentator in Haaretz, the country's most influential newspaper, said summing up the campaign. "The competition is between young-looking people, who dress young, speak Hebrew with a sabra (native), not Polish or French, accent. . . .

"We are perhaps witnessing a dramatic upheaval in Israeli politics. If Benjamin Netanyahu in fact is chosen to be the Likud leader, as the polls predict, we will for the first time see a man competing for the premiership who was born in Israel after the (1948) War of Independence. During the 1956 Sinai campaign, he was 6 years old, during the (1967) Six Day War he was 17. . . .

"In comparison with the geriatric department that has ruled the country until now, Netanyahu is a gladdening change. He perhaps may make history."

But Likud's ability to develop a matching new image and political strategy at its convention next month is far from certain.

Netanyahu's pursuit of the Likud leadership has been so single-minded since former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave it up that he has yet to lay out convincingly either a platform that will win back voters or a strategy to oust Rabin. And his bitter personal feud with Levy could split Likud badly.

Netanyahu initially talked of a two- or three-year effort to rebuild the party organization in preparation for the next election, which must be held before June, 1996, and of perhaps trying to pry a junior partner out of the Labor-led coalition government to force early elections.

During his campaign for the leadership, Netanyahu has made the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, a focus, implying that he would take a far harder line in the peace talks than Rabin has. He has accused Rabin of drawing up a secret plan for Israel's retreat from the strategic territory as part of a peace agreement with Syria. "Symbolic gestures" would be possible, he said, but nothing more.

Overall, however, Netanyahu's positions were so "thin," as one newspaper put it, that Israeli political commentators had little to assess besides his personality, campaign style and, of course, the scandal, known now as "Bibigate," over his extramarital affair.

What has left many Likud supporters uneasy is that Netanyahu's political philosophy appears focused simply on power, getting it and keeping it, and that his strategy for the party's comeback is summed up as "my leadership."

For a party that grew out of the ideologically driven, Zionist nationalism espoused for decades by Menachem Begin, this seems a virtual abandonment of principle in favor of the rankest form of political pragmatism.

Netanyahu's critics deride it as the "Americanization" of Israeli politics. They note that he has lived in the United States about 15 years altogether. They worry that the money he raises in California and New York will make him beholden to those contributors.

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