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(photo credit: AP [file])
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu took pains to downplay expectations on Monday, in the face of polls predicting victory for his party in the February 10 election with just two weeks left to go.
Netanyahu's associates said he did not want to repeat a mistake made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who lost seats for his party two weeks before the 2006 elections when he told Russian immigrant voters that the race had already been decided.
"We need to get elected," Netanyahu said at an event with religious-Zionist supporters. "We still have two weeks. Even though things look promising, they are not guaranteed."
Netanyahu spoke amid reports that he had already decided to form a government with Labor and leave Kadima in the opposition. He was quoted as saying in closed conversations that "Kadima will stay out."
The Likud vigorously denied that he had made such a statement.
Netanyahu's advisers said he would form a national-unity government, as he has promised repeatedly, but that he had no preference between including Labor or Kadima in the coalition.
"I'm with him all the time and he has never once said publicly or privately that he would not invite Kadima to his government," adviser Ron Dermer said. "He will try to form the widest possible government and reach out to all of them, but whether they all decide to join is another matter."
But senior Likud officials confirmed that Netanyahu would prefer Labor because he would want Labor chairman Ehud Barak to remain defense minister with the Iranian nuclear threat looming. They said that US President Barack Obama kept William Gates as his defense secretary for a similar reason, and that Netanyahu wanted to take advantage of the close relationship between Barak and Gates.
The officials said that Likud members would love to see Kadima enter the opposition, which they hope would lead to a split inside Kadima.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit ruled out such a possibility at a Kadima press conference, saying that his party was ready to be "a fighting opposition" if necessary.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon warned the press not to assume that the election was over. He noted that some 30 percent of the electorate was still undecided, and said that two weeks before an election that number was usually no more than 15%.
"Anyone talking about coalitions and who will be finished politically is making a big mistake," Ramon said. "First of all, it's arrogant and arrogance loses votes. I know, because we did it ahead of the last election."
But another Kadima MK admitted privately that, short of the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, the only thing that could bring Kadima victory was "Bibi saying something really, really stupid."
Kadima presented an image of victory at a rally Monday night in Sderot. The town's mayor, David Buskila of Kadima, paid tribute to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in a half-hour speech, crediting her with the success of Operation Cast Lead. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik went further, saying that "Livni initiated the operation."
Livni said that after much speculation about what would be the "victory photo" at the conclusion of the operation, it ended up being that hundreds of Kadima activists could attend the rally without fear of a Kassam rocket falling.
But Livni suffered a blow Monday night when Channel 2 reported that her own brother, Eli Livni, met with Netanyahu on Monday and agreed to work for Likud in the election.