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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It's an "open question" whether the Likud will survive if anyone other than he wins Monday's party leadership race, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
Netanyahu, who had refrained from attacking opposing candidates until this weekend, lashed out at the other three contenders - Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, right-wing activist Moshe Feiglin and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz. He said they offered "weak leadership," while only he could prevent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party from dividing Jerusalem.
"Will the Likud survive under weak leadership? That's an open question, but I think it will definitely thrive under my leadership," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu denied reports quoting high-ranking sources in his campaign as saying he would consider quitting the Likud if he lost and forming an umbrella right-wing party with the National Union and Yisrael Beiteinu called the "Real Nationalist Camp Party," modeled after the Republican Party in the US.
"I am the senior member of my staff and I say categorically that we don't see eye to eye with people who rule out talking with our neighbors," Netanyahu said. "The Likud has to be an independent center-right party and should not be far right."
But Netanyahu's rivals accused him of releasing threats to quit the party to the press because he was panicking in the face of polls showing that Shalom was gaining on him. They said the reports were intended to help Netanyahu get his supporters out to vote and prevent ideological people in the party from voting for Feiglin or Katz.
"Bibi knows that he has lost, so he is hysterical," Shalom said. "I said all along that Mofaz and Netanyahu would leave the Likud. He has proven time and time again that he loses his head in pressure situations and now he is under atomic pressure."
Some 700 polling stations in 167 locations throughout the country will open at 10 a.m. on Monday, allowing the Likud's 128,347 members to vote until 10 p.m. Gaza Strip evacuees will be able to vote in 29 sites. A candidate must receive 40 percent of the vote to prevent a runoff next Monday.
Netanyahu said if elected, unlike Shalom, he would immediately ask the Likud's institutions to remove the party's four ministers from the cabinet to differentiate the Likud from Kadima. He said he was not concerned about losing the influence that comes with having ministers in the cabinet, adding: "Sharon controls everything now anyway. We aren't affecting anything. We need to communicate to voters that we stand for something different from Kadima."
Netanyahu did not rule out the possibility that he would try to form an alternative coalition that could delay the March 28 election, but said he was skeptical about the idea.
A dispute broke out between Netanyahu and Shalom on Sunday about outsiders interfering in the race. Netanyahu charged that Sharon's son, Kadima MK Omri Sharon, was actively working on Shalom's behalf, an allegation vehemently denied by Shalom and Omri Sharon. A source close to the prime minister said Sharon personally ordered his son not to interfere in the race.
Shalom said the real outsider interfering was the chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, Benzi Lieberman, a Knesset candidate with the National Religious Party who endorsed Netanyahu.
But Netanyahu welcomed the council's involvement in the race.
"There's a wealth of difference between people in public movements expressing an opinion on the future of the country and people who left the party with a desire to destroy it and then come back to intervene and prevent my election in an immoral and unacceptable manner," he said.
Feiglin compared the settler leadership to "battered women" coming back to a husband who enabled the Gaza Strip withdrawal to happen and shook the hand of former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat.
Feiglin and Katz both predicted that they would be the surprise of Monday's primary.
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