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The Right could still win enough support to prevent Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from forming a coalition, Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu predicted on Thursday. His remarks came after Olmert limited Kadima's prospective coalition partners to parties that accept his plan to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank.
But Minister-without-Portfolio Tzahi Hanegbi, who is considered Kadima's most rightwing candidate, told The Jerusalem Post that even the Likud would end up joining a government led by Olmert, and that he did not think Olmert had veered from the path Ariel Sharon had intended to follow.
Netanyahu told a crowd in Shfaram that he believed enough voters would shift from Kadima to parties on the Right to convince President Moshe Katsav to allow the Likud to form the next government. He said Olmert helped the Likud by hinting in a Channel 10 interview on Wednesday that he intended to form a government with Labor and Meretz.
"I am optimistic because the polls from yesterday are showing clearly that the Likud is strengthening and Kadima is weakening," Netanyahu said. "The reason for the shift in the polls is that it has become increasingly clear in the last 24 hours that Olmert intends to build a staunchly left-wing government coalition with [Shimon] Peres, [Amir] Peretz and Meretz. Such a government would implement the big surrender plan that only the Likud can prevent."
In a closed-door session with key Likud activists, Netanyahu said there were still enough undecided voters to change the election dramatically. He suggested targeting former Likud voters with an emotional campaign. To that end, the remainder of the Likud's election commercials will feature passionate speeches by former prime minister and Likud leader Menachem Begin.
The polls that Netanyahu referred to included a Smith Research poll sponsored by The Jerusalem Post, which found that Kadima fell three to four seats in the last week to only 34 and the Likud rose from 14 seats in a poll taken on Monday to 15 on Wednesday.
The pattern was clearer in polls broadcast on Army Radio and Israel Radio on Thursday morning. In a Geocartographic Institute poll on Army Radio, Kadima fell from 43 seats a week ago to 34, while the Likud rose from 16 to 18. Israel Radio's Shvakim Panorama poll gave Kadima only 33-34 seats, down from 36 a week ago.
Kadima strategists said that despite the decrease in the polls, they did not believe that Olmert made a mistake when he announced his conditions for joining the coalition. They said he wanted it known to Russian immigrant voters that Israel Beiteinu would not be in the coalition unless party chairman Avigdor Lieberman endorsed Olmert's plan.
"We will gain votes from what Olmert said because Lieberman can no longer get away with lying to voters by telling them in Russian that he will be part of any government," Kadima strategist Lior Horev said. "He is trying to trick the public into thinking that he is a centrist, while he is planning to join with the National Union after the elections and take the opposition leader title from Netanyahu."
Kadima officials said they still believed that Israel Beiteinu, Shas and United Torah Judaism could be part of a Kadima-led government. And Hanegbi said that, despite Netanyahu's denials, the Likud would be there too.
"I think when Likud leaders look at their 15 mandates, they will decide that they are better off joining the government to advance their ideals when the borders of Israel are drafted," he said. "I don't see the Likud having another alternative, unless the polls are wrong and the Right gains enough support to have serious weight in the opposition."
Hanegbi said that since Olmert revealed his convergence plan two weeks ago, he was not aware of a single Kadima activist who had returned to the Likud. He said he did not believe that Kadima had shifted leftward.
"Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saw that a diplomatic process was needed, and Olmert is continuing in the same direction," Hanegbi said. "I don't think Olmert has veered from the path Sharon intended. He believes in keeping Ariel and other settlement blocs, which makes him far from Meretz."
At a Kadima rally at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called upon Kadima activists to bring the party enough support to minimize the party's reliance on coalition partners. She hinted that she would like to see Kadima form a narrow coalition so the party could implement its agenda without giving in to coalition partners.
A Likud central committee member from Jerusalem named "Shlomo" said at the event that he had considered voting for Kadima but that since Olmert's plans had been revealed, he was now leaning toward voting Likud. He said he still hoped Kadima would break apart and the Likud would be reunited.