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More than 128,000 Likud members will be eligible to vote in polling stations across the country on Monday when the party elects its new leader and candidate for prime minister.
Following the departure of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and MK Uzi Landau, four candidates remain in the race: former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, activist Moshe Feiglin and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz.
Whoever wins will face a daunting battle to prevent the party's drastic Knesset decline and will have to try to fill the enormous shoes of the most successful Likud leader ever, who still casts an enormous shadow over the party.
Not Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose Likud won 38 seats in 2003, but the late prime minister Menachem Begin, who won 43 seats for the Likud when the party took power for the first time in 1977, and achieved an amazing 48 mandates in 1981.
Since Sharon's departure from the Likud, Begin has made a posthumous comeback to the forefront of the Likud race. The candidates make a habit of mentioning him in their political speeches, party activists talk about how much he is missed and Netanyahu and Katz have both issued public calls to Begin's son, former science minister Bennie Begin, to return to the Likud.
The spotlight on the late Begin in the Likud is being replicated with former leaders of other parties. Current Labor chairman Amir Peretz spoke at Yitzhak Rabin's memorial rally last month and Sharon likened himself to David Ben-Gurion at his memorial ceremony in Sde Boker last week.
Netanyahu in particular has made portraying himself as Begin's successor an integral part of his political strategy. Connecting himself to Begin allows him to remind Likud members that he is the only former prime minister running in the race and it enables him to portray Sharon's six years at the helm of the Likud as an aberration.
IT WAS therefore no surprise that Netanyahu decided to make his last high profile campaign stop a visit to the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Netanyahu took a pilgrimage to the site on Wednesday and invited television cameras to follow him around for his 90-minute tour.
Accompanied by Begin Center Director General Herzl Makov and venerable founder Harry Hurwitz, Netanyahu toured somewhat impatiently through the exhibits that take visitors through Begin's days as a Zionist activist, IZL commander, opposition leader and ultimately prime minister.
Netanyahu then proceeded to the vista outside the center overlooking Jerusalem's Old City walls and proclaimed that "every Likud government from Begin's to mine strengthened and built in Jerusalem."
The timing of Netanyahu's visit was set two weeks ago, but it could not have been better for him, coming on the heels of a Newsweek report quoting Sharon adviser Kalman Geyer saying that Sharon would be willing to concede parts of Jerusalem for a Palestinian state. Netanyahu used the visit to declare that the Likud under his leadership would not let Sharon get away with dividing Jerusalem.
The backdrop of the Begin Center was essential for Netanyahu to allay the fears of those Likud members who are concerned that he would be willing to make concessions in Judea and Samaria as he did when, as prime minister, he signed the Hebron and Wye accords, which led to Bennie Begin's departure from the government and the party.
Netanyahu vowed to keep Jerusalem united, but he stopped way short of making a similar statement to the one played in the museum a few minutes before: "I Menachem Begin, the son of Dov and Hassya, hereby undertake that I will not leave Judea, Samaria the Gaza Strip or the Golan Heights."
Hurwitz, who was one of Begin's most trusted confidants, said that Shalom had made two recent visits to the center and that Mofaz had intended to come the day before Netanyahu, but canceled after quitting the Likud. While avoiding making a political statement, Hurwitz said that Begin's absence was felt now more than ever in the Likud and the nation.
"Begin's personality, integrity and vision of the state, the people of Israel and the land of Israel are more than lacking," Hurwitz said. "Netanyahu presumably came to draw inspiration from Begin's deeds and words, which are inspirational for everyone. I don't think anybody can pretend to be a successor to Menachem Begin. But if he [Netanyahu] follows his [Begin's] policies, he will be a very worthy follower of him."
Veteran Likud central committee member Gaston Malka complained at a rally for Shalom on Wednesday that Netanyahu had strayed so far from Begin's economic policies that he would quit the party if Netanyahu were elected. Landau said that many Likudniks who still believe in Begin's vision of a Greater Israel have complained to him that since he quit the race, they had no one left to vote for.
The candidate who sounds most like Begin is Feiglin, who talks of the need for "a Jewish government," much like Begin, who when asked what kind of a prime minister he would be, replied: "A good Jewish prime minister."
But the majority of the settler leadership and most hawkish Likud activists have endorsed Netanyahu. Residents of Judea and Samaria in the Likud central committee even started a campaign under the slogan, "We love you Feiglin, but we are voting for Netanyahu."
"Netanyahu is what there is," National Union leader Benny Elon said. "He can bring the Likud the most seats; he won't enter a coalition with Sharon; and we can only hope he will stick to the Likud platform."
Former MK Shmuel Katz, who served in the first Knesset on Begin's Herut list, said that the Likud has been neglecting its ideology for too many years. He said he hoped that whoever is elected on Monday restores the Likud to what it used to be.
"The Likud needs to get back to its original ideology and to what the country needs for practical policy," Katz said. "Without the ideology, what do they need a party for? They can just go to Sharon for jobs. Without the ideology, it's not the Likud."
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