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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom launched his campaign for the Likud Party leadership Monday night by taking a few swings at the former friends who are now his rivals.
About 500 activists, although no current MKs, turned out to a Tel Aviv banquet hall where Shalom presented himself as the only alternative for a Likud Party "that is in a crisis," after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abandoned it two weeks ago to form his new party, Kadima.
Shalom is one of six Likud politicians in the field, which also includes Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
"I started down this road to win and to bring Likud back to the Likudnik," Shalom told a not-entirely enthusiastic crowd.
Shalom moved quickly from announcing his candidacy to a frontal assault on his immediate rivals, Netanyahu and Mofaz.
He wondered if Netanyahu, who brought about Likud's stunning demise in the 1999 elections and "then fled," could really be an acceptable chairman. "I stayed," said Shalom, "to pick up the pieces" and resurrect the party.
Shalom, who is originally from Beersheba and also served as finance minister and deputy defense minister, reminded the audience no less than three times of the "destruction" that Netanyhu brought on the party.
And, as his campaign jingle suggests, Shalom will play the moderate's roles in the Likud primaries. "Peace with the neighbors is Silvan, peace at home is Silvan," the peppy voices sang. Shalom's main rival, Netanyahu, is to present a hardliner approach.
He then wondered if Mofaz "can stay in Likud under every condition," hinting that Mofaz's loyalty may lie more with Sharon than with the party.
Virtually no one was spared in Shalom's speech. After hinting that Sharon lied both to Likud and to the country by pushing ahead with the summer's withdrawal from Gaza, Shalom proceeded to pick apart both Kadima and Labor.
Shalom taunted the Labor Party and Sharon's Kadima Party, who unveil new candidates, or "models," seemingly daily: "What are they running, the Fashion Channel?"
Conspicuously absent for the foreign minister were current Knesset members. A few seats had been set aside for Likud bigwigs. Eventually Shalom's aides scrambled to fill the front row seats with other activists.
About two-thirds of the way into Shalom's speech, activists began chatting in the back of the room, much to the vexation of the candidate's wife, Judy Nir Shalom-Moses.
Shalom offered a hazy political platform based on what he called "the three legsâ€¦ diplomacy [with the Palestinians], the social-economic issue and religion and tradition." Shalom's campaign, according to aides and Likud central committee members, would rely on using Shalom's strong base of grassroots support and hammering away at his rivals - all while brandishing the ethnic card where advantageous.
Shalom feigned offense at an alleged ethnic slur towards North African Jews leveled at Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz by outgoing chairman Shimon Peres' younger brother.
As trivial as the alleged slur might have been, Shalom built a section of his speech on it, reminding his audience of the grossest incidents of Labor Party bigotry against Sephardic Jews and Likud members alike in the past 30 years.
A poll taken by HOT News in southern development towns found that the Likud, which traditionally won such towns, is now running a distant third. Labor would win 31 mandates, Kadima 30 and Likud 13 in Ofakim, Arad, Dimona, Yeroham, Netivot, Mitzpe Ramon and Kiryat Gat.
Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office sponsored a poll on Monday that found that 54 percent of the 129,000 Likud members who intend to vote in the January 19 primary would vote for him, 22% for Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, 14% for Shalom, 8.5% for MK Uzi Landau, 4.5% for Likud activist Moshe Feiglin and less than one percent for Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz.
The Likud formed an organizational task force on Tuesday to prepare for the next election, headed by party Director-General Arik Brami.
Brami rented offices at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds and billboards across the country for the next four months and has started providing budgets to all the Likud branches to turn them into campaign headquarters.
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