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Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, whose return to the Prime Minister's Office is being threatened by the meteoric rise of Israel Beiteinu in the polls, began an effort on Wednesday to return voters who have left the Likud in recent days.
The Likud's lead over Kadima has fallen to as little as three seats, even though Kadima has remained stagnant, because, according to a Ma'agar Mohot poll broadcast on Channel 2 last night, the Likud has lost six seats, including three to Israel Beiteinu, since the police intensified its investigation of Israel Beiteinu leader, Avigdor Lieberman, last week. The poll showed Israel Beiteinu receiving 19 seats.
The Likud led with 26 mandates, followed by Kadima at 23 and Labor with 13.
Netanyahu reached out to voters who intend to cast their ballots for Israel Beiteinu by reassuring them that a vote for the Likud would guarantee Lieberman a senior ministry. He spoke to Lieberman's core constituency at a massive rally at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds in which his speech was translated into Russian.
"If you vote for another party, the Likud will be weakened, but if you vote for Likud, I will be prime minister and make Lieberman an important minister in my cabinet and build a strong government," Netanyahu told the crowd.
Sources close to Netanyahu said his strategy would be to persuade voters who wanted "a two for one vote" that would strengthen both Netanyahu and Lieberman that they had to vote for Likud. They cited statistics that the overwhelming majority of Israel Beiteinu voters wanted Netanyahu to be prime minister and Kadima overthrown.
Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu said that if elected, he planned to form a national unity government, but that he would first work to bring satellite parties on the Right into his coalition. In an address at the Herzliya Conference at the Inter-Disciplinary Center, he made a point of indirectly mentioning Israel Beiteinu.
"If I'm elected I intend to unify all the central forces in the nation to create a national unity government that is as wide as possible," he said. "I will first approach our traditional partners to unite the national camp - veterans and newcomers, secular and religious. But that's not enough. We have to unite the people as a whole. I'll approach all the Zionist parties and ask them to the join the national unity government."
Netanyahu spelled out his coalition more specifically in talks with reporters at the event. He said his coalition's guidelines would allow Labor and Israel Beiteinu to sit together in his government.
"They have sat together before and there is no reason why they cannot again," he said.
While several Labor MKs have come out against joining a coalition with Israel Beiteinu, Labor chairman Ehud Barak has refused to rule it out.
The head of the Labor campaign's response team, MK Shelly Yacimovich, said Labor "would not sit with the Siamese twin of Kahane."
But Barak would only say that Israel Beiteinu would be an "unnatural partner" for Labor.
Lieberman continued to rule out sitting in a government led by Kadima leader Tzipi Livni on Wednesday, and he and MKs close to him spoke openly about their preference for Netanyahu as prime minister.
"I think the Likud and Israel Beiteinu are two components of the next government," Lieberman told reporters in the South. "I see Israel Beiteinu as an integral and influential part of a nationalist government with guidelines of the nationalist camp."
Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem went further, telling the Knesset Channel that "Israel Beiteinu will not sit in a government led by Livni" and that the party would not recommend to President Shimon Peres that Livni form the next government. Instead, he said the party would recommend that either Netanyahu or Lieberman himself be entrusted with the task.
Livni has made a point of never criticizing Lieberman, knowing that the shift of voters from Likud to Israel Beiteinu could help her win Tuesday's election. At a speech to Russian immigrants, she did not even mention him. In speeches on Wednesday, Livni said the race was still open and that she could still win.
"The battle is close and I intend to take my gloves off," Livni said in a speech to mayors. "I know that there is pressure and hysteria on the other side."
In an effort to shore up support in a traditional Likud bastion, Netanyahu visited Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market on Wednesday morning. While some vendors welcomed him, others expressed anger at his cutbacks as finance minister.
"You are a bad man," one shopper told Netanyahu. "Give me back my stipend."
Netanyahu's visit to the market was cut short after someone through rice at him and the large security detail surrounding him made him leave the market. The Shin-Bet (Israel Security Agency) also made him reluctantly wear a bullet-proof vest on the tour.
Netanyahu then met with evacuees from the Gush Katif bloc of settlements in the Gaza Strip. He reassured them that he did not intend to withdraw unilaterally from any part of the West Bank as prime minister.
"The evacuation was tragic and your treatment since then was shameful," he said. "The Kadima government didn't do anything to help you for three years. They uprooted you and then abandoned you.
"We will not create any new tragedies."
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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