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Sunday marked Binyamin Netanyahu's first victory as new Likud chairman. Not that getting Moshe Feiglin to announce he was not seeking a place in the Knesset was that great a victory. After coming in third in the Likud primaries two weeks ago, Feiglin didn't pose any kind of threat to Netanyahu's leadership, but at least for purposes of appearance, Netanyahu has shown that he's in charge.
Feiglin's people insisted Sunday that from the start he had only planned to run for the leadership and had no plans to try for a Knesset seat. But the fact remains that if he had made an attempt to run for the list, Netanyahu would have either changed the rules to prevent him from running or mobilized every last central committee member to ensure that he lost. For now, Feiglin is content to rest his forces during the elections and plan how to enlarge the number of party members loyal to him.
To have any chance of salvaging the Likud's electoral prospects, Netanyahu must first relegitimize the party. This is especially critical after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has done everything in his power to portray his former party as an irresponsible, fanatic fringe group, set on blocking any chance of peace. Netanyahu has appeared steadfast in his intention to expel Feiglin from the party and, more importantly, was willing to antagonize his right-wing ally Uzi Landau by doing so. The anti-Feiglin campaign was the first and crucial step toward rubbing out the far-right stigma that the rival parties and the media have cast on the Likud.
Netanyahu actually had little to lose by going after Feiglin. Most of his followers weren't planning to vote Likud anyway. Netanyahu, in their eyes, is the prime minister who gave away Hebron and signed the Wye Plantation agreement and, in this Knesset, voted at first in favor of disengagement and "remembered" to leave the government only two weeks before the pullback. Even now, after Sharon's departure and under Netanyahu, settlers and other staunch right-wingers don't see the Likud as a party that will battle for the wholeness of Eretz Yisrael.
The only votes that Netanyahu can regain now are those of people wavering between the Likud and Kadima, and kicking Feiglin out was the first step to bringing them home. But there is still a long way to go. The next step will be in next week's central committee vote on the list of Knesset candidates.
If Netanyahu wants a list that will be attractive to voters planning to defect to Kadima, he will have to continue being ruthless toward the less popular of his colleagues. Ironically, this means that the MKs who were most instrumental in pushing Sharon out of the party, "the rebels," have the most to worry about from "hit lists" that will begin issuing from Netanyahu's surroundings over the next few days.
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