Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom
challenged the other five candidates for the Likud
leadership on Sunday to a televised debate ahead of the December 19 party primary.
Shalom said that such a debate would allow the 129,000 Likud members who can vote in the primary to listen to the candidates' views in a direct fashion without being filtered through the prepared statements of consultants and spin doctors.
Spokesmen for former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu
, former minister Uzi Landau
, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and activist Moshe Feiglin
immediately accepted Shalom's challenge. Katz said that he wanted the debate "any time, any place."
Landau's spokesman said that his candidate "had nothing to be afraid of." He said that such a debate would be to Landau's advantage, because "it would show how little Netanyahu has to say" and it would reveal that Mofaz and Shalom are "contractors of Sharon who joined the race 15 minutes ago and can't possibly provide an alternative."
Only Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's
associates said he would need time to consider Shalom's offer, which a sources close to Mofaz called "a gimmick." Mofaz's strategists have carefully built a campaign designed to help him run close enough to Netanyahu to force a December 26 run-off race in which it is likely that most of the candidates would unite with him to defeat Netanyahu.
The Mofaz campaign will emphasize that he is a leader on both security and social issues and present him as the only candidate who can take support away from both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor chairman Amir Peretz
. The campaign will also focus on comparing Mofaz's humble beginnings as a nine-year-old Persian immigrant to Eilat with Netanyahu's upbringing in Jerusalem's
Katamon neighborhood and the US.
"Social issues are the story of this campaign," a Mofaz associate said. "Mofaz hasn't adopted such issues recently. From the moment that Bibi announced his economic plan, Mofaz warned that it would harm Likud members. Bibi is unelectable and he would have a tough time forming a coalition, but Mofaz can bring the party significant public support."
Mofaz hired campaign strategist Yuval Porat of the Spin agency on Sunday to replace Moti Morel and Ronen Tzur, who from now on will work solely with Peretz. Porat worked for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip
in its battle against disengagement.
Yossi Ra'anan, a veteran Likud member and retired brigadier general, will chair Mofaz's campaign. Ra'anan headed the Likud's communications efforts in the 1984 and 1988 campaigns and headed Roni Milo's
successful campaign for Tel Aviv mayor.
Netanyahu opened his campaign office on Sunday night in the Europe-Israel building in Tel Aviv, accompanied by 150 Likud activists and MKs Michael Ratzon and David Levy. Netanyahu's campaign will focus on his opposition to disengagement, in an effort to shift the focus away from socio-economic issues.
"A united Likud will renew itself and win the next elections," Netanyahu said in radio interviews on Sunday. "All we have to do is remind people that the Likud is the only party for people who want to prevent the Green Line from approaching Kfar Saba, Beersheba and even Jerusalem."