Likud race goes down to the wire

With less than 48 hours to go in the Likud leadership race, the two leading candidates, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and MK Binyamin Netanyahu, spoke of their intention to emerge victorious in Monday's election. Polls show former prime minister Netanyahu with anywhere from a 20 percent lead to as little as a 1.2% advantage over Shalom. The two other candidates in the leadership race, MK Yisrael Katz and Moshe Feiglin, are far behind, with one Kol Yisrael poll putting Katz at 4.6% and Feiglin at 7.1%. Shalom, with 39%, and Netanyahu, at 40.2%, are running neck-and-neck. To emerge as the party leader, any one of the four candidates must win at least 40% of Monday's vote. Should all candidates garner less than 40%, a second leadership primary would be held the following Monday between the top two candidates. "I intend to win the leadership race, but no matter what the results I will always stay with the Likud because it's my home," Netanyahu told the NRG-Maariv Web site on Saturday evening. He dismissed accusations made against him and other Likud rebels blaming them for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to leave the party and form Kadima. Netanyahu said Sharon had always intended to leave because he has a secret plan to divide Jerusalem. Netanyahu added that all his predictions about the dangers of disengagement have come true, and it has made Israel seem weak and strengthened Hamas. "Now Sharon and Kadima will strengthen them even more," he said. Shalom called on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to bar Hamas from the election and warned that a victory by the group would set the region back 50 years. "A victory for Hamas would turn the territories into Hamastan and [create] a situation in which none of us want to be," Shalom told Israel Radio. "Today is the time to make the tough decision, the strategic decision, to dismantle the terror infrastructure and go to elections with the intent afterward of making peace with Israel," Shalom said, directing his comments to Abbas. Speaking in Acre on Friday, Shalom said Labor Party leader Amir Peretz feared him the most of all Likud candidates. "Amir Peretz is scared to death that I will be the Likud's choice to run against him for prime minister," said Shalom, adding that he was the candidate best able to make peace. A spokesman for Shalom told The Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu was also scared of Shalom. Both Feiglin's and Katz's spokesmen spoke of their optimism that their candidates would best the others despite the predictions of the polls. Both candidates also promised to take the Likud out of the government should they win the leadership race. Hebrew media reported that Netanyahu held a similar stance. A spokesman for Netanyahu said he had made such statements in the past, but that his focus now was on Monday's race. Shalom's spokesman said that the foreign minister was making no such decisions until after the race. There are 128,347 party members who can vote in Monday's election in 167 polling stations open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. throughout the country. Polling stations for Gaza evacuees will be set up in Nitzan and in 19 other locations. Some 500 to 600 Gaza evacuees can vote in the Likud primary race. AP contributed to this report.