Election Leaves Likud's Netanyahu to Pick Up the Pieces

Israel's parliamentary elections are now over and the Likud party didn't receive many votes, even though it has dominated Israeli politics for decades. Some people blame Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party leader and Israel's finance minister. Others say he is the only hope for the party to survive.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's a look at an Israeli Party and an Israeli politician at a low ebb. For nearly three decades, the hardline Likud Party was a dominant force in Israeli politics. But it only won a dozen seats in this week's Parliamentary elections. It tied for third place with an ultra-orthodox party. Some in Likud are blaming party leader and former Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and say he should resign. Others say Netanyahu is the only who can rebuild the party, as NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporter:

The Israeli election may be over, but Adina and Yuram Isasfar(ph) are still arguing about it. And the main point of contention is Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. As finance minister, Netanyahu imposed sharp cuts in social welfare programs. Adina says because of those cuts, her sister, a single mother of three, can't make ends meet anymore. And so, she says, for the first time in 25 years, she didn't vote for the Likud, choosing a smaller hardline party instead.

Ms. ADINA ISASFAR (Israel Resident): He promised to get rid of the poverty. He promised to help everybody. He promised there would be less differences between the higher class and the lower class, and he did the exact opposite. I feel that the people who are poor today are even poorer than they were and people who are rich are richer than they were. And the middle class are the ones that went down even more.

GRADSTEIN: But Adina's husband Yuram, a building contractor, remains a steadfast Netanyahu supporter.

Mr. YURAM ISAFAR (Israel Resident): (Through Translator) I like Benjamin Netanyahu, his tenacity, the way he talks and the way he implements what he says. I think he is an excellent leader.

GRADSTEIN: But some in the Likud disagree, and there is speculation that other senior party officials like Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom will try to replace Netanyahu as Likud leader. Even before results were announced in Tuesday's election, Netanyahu knew it was not good news for his Party. He looked pale and shell-shocked when he spoke to supporters at a post-election rally at Likud headquarters. Many expected him to announce his resignation then, after the Party's worst electoral showing since 1951. But he didn't.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): (Through Translator) I intend to keep going on the path I've only just begun to ensure that this movement is rebuilt.

Mr. URI DROMI (Former Director Israeli Government Press Office): I think the personality of Netanyahu had to do with it.

GRADSTEIN: Uri Dromi is the former director of the Government Press Office under Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr. DROMI: People after all don't have such a short memory. They remember him as a failure from his term as prime minister. And I think people didn't like the way he zigzagged over the disengagement.

GRADSTEIN: Netanyahu pulled out of the government over Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. A few months later, shortly before his massive stroke, Sharon left Likud to form the Centrist Kadima, which won Tuesday's elections. Beyond the question of Netanyahu's leadership, some in Likud say the Israeli public has rejected the Likud's ideology.

Likud opposes withdrawal from occupied territory and believes in expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Dan Meridor is a former cabinet minister from the Likud.

Mr. DAN MERIDOR (Former Likud Cabinet Minister): I think some Israelis understand that we are not going to keep the entire [unintelligible]. We need to compromise and give up a lot of land which is ours, but at least we're giving it up because of demographic reasons and so forth.

GRADSTEIN: Meridor says that if the Likud wants to become a major force in Israeli politics again, it will have to rethink its ideology.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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