By Mark Lavie
Associated Press Writer
JERUSALEM (AP) — Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a setback Tuesday in his quest to reclaim the prime minister's office in Israel when his front-running Likud Party chose a slate of candidates even more hawkish than him.
The outcome could weaken his party's popularity, and even if Netanyahu wins a Feb. 10 election, it could limit his ability to negotiate peace with Israel's Arab neighbors.
The big winner in results announced early Tuesday was Netanyahu's nemesis, Moshe Feiglin. While Netanyahu opposes the current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and hopes to limit contacts to economic cooperation, Feiglin goes much further. His theocratic platform calls for banning minority Arab citizens from the parliament, encouraging non-Jews to leave the country and pulling Israel out of the United Nations.
Netanyahu, who resisted peace efforts when he was prime minister from 1996-1999, hoped to present a more mainstream list of candidates to bolster support for his party, backing popular ex-generals, politicians and others for the list.
But party members instead chose candidates with uncompromising views, led by Feiglin, who founded a movement that blocked highway intersections around the country in 1995 to protest partial peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Others included the son of former Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Benny Begin. He told Army Radio "there will be no (peace) agreement in the near future" because of Arab rejection of Israel.
Rivals did not hide their glee at the blow to Netanyahu's prestige. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima, who is not seeking re-election, said the primary showed the Likud "has become an extreme right-wing party that would lead the state of Israel to a corner of isolation."
The election is set for three weeks after Barack Obama—who has pledged to work for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians—takes office as U.S. president.
Even if Netanyahu intended to press for concessions to the Palestinians for peace—and many doubt he would—pressure from within his own party could stop him.
Recent polls have shown Netanyahu's Likud with a 10-seat lead over Kadima, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. But they have also shown that the presence of Feiglin on the Likud list could scare away a significant number of potential voters. A Likud insider estimated a loss of three or four seats, while some analysts predicted even more erosion.
Livni reveled in Netanyahu's predicament. "The Likud list is not my problem. It's Bibi's problem," she said, using Netanyahu's nickname. "It's a weight around his neck, not mine."
Even the most optimistic polls had Likud winning about 35 seats in the 120-seat parliament, forcing Netanyahu to patch together a coalition with powerful partners from the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-hawkish sectors.
Losing even a handful of those 35 because of the Feiglin effect could drop Likud into a tie with Kadima, a centrist movement started by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who broke away from Likud because of its opposition to his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. That would make coalition-building more difficult and long-term stability doubtful.
Israel's electoral system, based on voting for parties instead of individual candidates, lends itself to multi-party results and a fractured parliament.
Over the past decade, traditional parties have been losing strength and sectorial parties have been gaining. After the last election, less than three years ago, Kadima formed a government after winning just 29 seats, holding less than a majority in its own government, a first in Israel.
When Olmert resigned in September because of corruption charges, Livni was chosen to replace him but was unable to form her own government—another first. The resulting national election will be Israel's fifth in less than seven years.