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When the coalition-building negotiations begin on Sunday, representatives from Kadima, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Israel Beiteinu and the Gil Pensioners Party will head to Ramat Gan's Kfar Hamacabiah Hotel for the usual political horse-trading.
The one party that will be noticeably absent will be the Likud, whose negotiators formed the last two governments at the same hotel. While the talks are going on, Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu will be a few kilometers away in a nearly empty 15-story Tel Aviv high-rise, the headquarters of the party that ruled Israel for the past five years.
Following the Likud's dramatic downfall from 40 seats to 12, Netanyahu was forced to fire more than two thirds of the party's employees, turning the dilapidated building into a ghost town. The party's traditional Pessah toast, which in years past was held in a fancy banquet hall, will instead take place on Sunday at the building, temporarily refilling its top floor with activists.
Netanyahu will toast the holiday, but the exodus of mandates from the party and the years in the desert of the opposition set to follow will leave the Likud with little to celebrate. The dozen MKs who remain all agree that the party will eventually return to the promised land of the Prime Minister's Office, but they are bitterly divided over why the Likud fell and what is needed to get the party back on its feet again.
"THE RESULTS of the election were a colossal failure for the party," MK Limor Livnat told The Jerusalem Post. "This election could result in the Likud ceasing to exist and becoming another page of history or blossoming again as a ruling party."
Netanyahu's opponents, like Livnat, believe the party fell because of Netanyahu's leadership, his character and his economic policies that directly harmed the party's traditional voters in development towns and poor neighborhoods. They also criticize a party election campaign that they say focused too much on "scare tactics" and not enough on positive messages about why to vote for the Likud.
The Likud leader's loyalists blame Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for splitting the party and former Likud ministers such as Livnat for blurring the party's ideology by staying in the cabinet even after the Gaza Strip was evacuated. They suggest that the way for the Likud to recover is for the party to unite around Netanyahu's leadership and await the collapse of Kadima. Off the record, they even hint that an economic downturn and perhaps even a conveniently timed wave of terror could expedite the Likud's recovery.
Netanyahu's rivals say the first step toward the Likud's recovery must be the removal of the party chairman. They believe that internal elections must be held as soon as possible to begin the process of healing the party.
"I said all along that in the Likud leadership race, the choice was between a small Likud headed by Netanyahu and a large Likud under me," Silvan Shalom said. "I thought the Likud had no chance under him and unfortunately, I was right. We failed because the party went too far to the extreme right, the socioeconomic plan was anti-social and people didn't want the man who headed the Likud."
Shalom said Netanyahu made a mistake when he removed the party from the government. He blamed Netanyahu for the creation of many political parties of ex-Likudniks that were formed to challenge his leadership, including Kadima, Gesher, Center, National Union and Israel Beiteinu.
Shalom has an "emergency plan to save the Likud" that he hopes will return it to the heart of the nation. The plan includes moderating the party's diplomatic path, reforming its institutions and holding a Likud leadership race as soon as possible. He said he would travel across the country to speak to Likudniks and return them to the party.
NETANYAHU'S ASSOCIATES said they made a strategic decision "not to enter a street battle with Silvan."
They said that had Shalom defeated Netanyahu in the Likud leadership race, the party's mandates would have fallen into the single digits.
"Unfortunately, there are those who are scheming and undermining the Likud for personal reasons and damaging the party when unity is needed to rebuild," a Netanyahu adviser said. "Luckily, the majority of the MKs in the faction are working together to rebuild the party's image."
Sources close to Netanyahu said that anyone who hoped he would quit the party chairmanship after an electoral failure as he did in 1999 were in for a disappointment. Netanyahu was even quoted as saying that he wanted to remain in the Knesset until he is the age of 82-year-old Shimon Peres.
Netanyahu's rivals liked the comparison with Peres, whose name has become synonymous with electoral failure. Netanyahu's loyalists preferred a comparison with former prime minister and longtime Likud leader Menachem Begin, but Begin himself lost every election from 1948 onward before he won for the first time in 1977.
"Bibi doesn't intend to be the opposition leader for 30 years like Begin," the Netanyahu adviser said. "The Likud suffered a big blow when Arik [Sharon] left the Likud. Without Superman it was inevitable that we would take a blow, but the party can recover under Bibi. God forbid that the Likud pray for there to be terror attacks, but we think unilateral withdrawals will only continue the bloodshed and intensify the conflict. When the public realizes that Bibi's diplomatic and economic paths were correct, the voters will return."
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has taken a neutral stance in the battle between Bibi backers and Netanyahu nixers. He said that the recipe to return to the Prime Minister's Office is hard work in the opposition and maintaining party unity at all costs.
"We are all to blame," Rivlin said. "Bibi didn't destroy the Likud - the Likud destroyed itself. Instead of Silvan and Bibi fighting for the leadership, we need to unite, to get organized, to serve the country in the opposition and to try to bring back voters to Likud and its path. My hope is that the Likud supporters merely punished the party and did not desert it permanently."