Steamrollered Likud tries to pick up the pieces

Early returns showed the party potentially losing its slot as the country's leading right-wing party.

The Big Bang set off by Ariel Sharon when he bolted the Likud to form Kadima flattened his former party Tuesday. Early returns showed the party that governed Israel until this fall garnering only 11 or 12 mandates, and potentially losing its slot as the country's leading right-wing party. Sources close to Likud No. 2 Silvan Shalom said late Tuesday night that Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu had destroyed the party and could no longer remain its chairman. Shalom himself boycotted a late-night Likud faction meeting at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, opting instead to stay at his Ramat Gan home planning his next move. Yet Netanyahu vowed to stay at his party's helm, despite speculation that he would resign if he failed to win at least 15 mandates. "I am committed to continuing in the way that we started to ensure that the movement will be rehabilitated," he declared just after 11 p.m., describing the initial results as a "hard hit" after the "first blow" when Sharon left the party. "We will unite our powers and stick to our path and return the Likud to leading the state," he maintained. "We will see better days." The crowd, which had earlier expressed shock and despair over the early return, broke into cheers at hearing his announcement. Several party stalwarts also backed his decision to stay at the top, though no one said his job would be easy. "As a leader he should stay and rebuild the party," said MK Gideon Sa'ar, who headed the party's public relations team. "I don't think it's the right thing to do right now, to start another series of internal conflicts within the Likud." Many Likud MKs cited the major internal division - between Sharon and his Kadima backers and those who remained in the Likud - as being responsible for Tuesday's poor showing. MK Michael Eitan went further, saying, "We are all responsible." Eitan, MK Uzi Landau and other senior Likud members ruled out participation in a Kadima-led coalition which a platform backing unilateral action. But some candidates did express criticism of Netanyahu, and many suggested that the party will have to take stock and change tack once the final results are known. Ahead of the vote, MK Reuven Rivlin told The Jerusalem Post that while Netanyahu had attracted those who "worship him and appreciate him," there were "others [who] hate his guts." Many blamed him for the economic hardships caused them by his policies when he was the finance minister in the last government. "He became one of the symbols that brought misery to many people," said Rivlin. "We have lost many people who believed that the Likud championed the poor people." Despite the rousing singing of traditional Israeli songs and chants of "We love you, Bibi" belted out by the younger members of the crowd following Netanyahu's speech, the aftershock of the election returns could be felt at the Likud election party at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. Party activists of any age, however, seemed to be well outnumbered by media at the Tel Aviv event, a perhaps telling sign for a party that failed to energize its historical voting base or draw in throngs of new recruits. Also missing from the fairgrounds was Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who had challenged Netanyahu for the party chairmanship. Danny Danon, who was too far down on the Likud list to hope he could enter the Knesset, said it was up to the next generation of voters to turn the party around. "We as the young leadership of the Likud need to check [within ourselves] what we need to do to improve our movement," he said. He predicted that "the next elections will be sooner than we think." Tovah Lazaroff and Ravit Cohen contributed to this report.