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Binyamin Netanyahu was suffering this week from deja vu. The primaries campaign that has been forced on him these past weeks is very similar to the television debate before the 1999 elections.
Labor challenger Ehud Barak didn't turn up, and prime minister Netanyahu's efforts to say that the real debate was between him and the empty chair representing Barak didn't save him from being savaged by the short-lived Center Party's candidate, Yitzhak Mordechai.
At that point, everyone already expected Mordechai to pull out of the race, but the public damage he caused Netanyahu that evening did a lot to bring him down.
In this contest Netanyahu's rival is Ariel Sharon, and they were supposed to meet for a duel in the Likud primaries. Sharon decided a month ago not to show up but his double will be there. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom might have remained in the same party as Netanyahu but he is still close to Sharon, whom he serves as a senior minister. Shalom is Sharon's proxy in these primaries and thousands of Sharonites who are still formally Likud members will be voting for him on Monday.
They don't really care anymore who will lead the Likud, they just want to damage Bibi. Netanyahu is of course the clear favorite to win, but a high turnout for the Sharon-Shalom camp will rob him of the landslide majority that he needs to command the Likud with confidence.
Shalom of course realizes where his cohorts are coming from and he has done nothing to anger his patron over the last few weeks. After Sharon's pollster revealed leftist intentions, all the Likud leaders vied to lambaste Sharon, except Shalom, who made do with a lukewarm statement that "Likud voters can't vote for a party that includes both Peres and Hanegbi, it's too much of a sha'atnez [nonkosher mix]." Not a harsh word for the PM; he reserves those for Netanyahu whom he has accused over the last few days of ruining the Likud and forsaking the poor.
Netanyahu is pursuing an opposite strategy. He wants to pretend that the primaries are already behind him and he's already facing Sharon on a level playing field. He isn't answering the attacks of his rivals within the Likud as part of what he calls a "Likudnik doesn't attack another Likudnik" policy. Presenting himself as a unifying figure might win him the primaries, but Sharon's team believes that the mud thrown at Netanhayu by Shalom will stick.
And just how confident can Netanyahu really be? He's ahead in all the polls but by widely differing margins. Only Thursday, Haaretz's poll gave him a 17 percent lead while Kol Yisrael had the gap between him and Shalom at only 1.2%. The Likud's 130,000-strong membership has always been notoriously difficult to sample and predict. This time there are two additional obstacles for pollsters to overcome. It's unclear how many members have already gone over to Sharon's Kadima Party, or are planning to, and what proportion of these are still going to bother with voting in the Likud primaries. And there is another unpredictable group, the tens of thousands of rightwing members, many living in settlements, who still haven't forgiven Netanyahu for his initial support for disengagement and resigning from the government only two months before the pullback. How many of them are willing to give him a last chance? If most of them are planning to sit the primaries out or to cast a protest vote for Moshe Feiglin, Netanyahu could well be in trouble.