Generation passes in Israel Netanyahu wins Likud leadership

March 26, 1993|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- Israel's main political opposition changed generations yesterday, from the founders of the Jewish state to their heirs, when Benjamin Netanyahu resoundingly won a nationwide primary to become leader of the Likud bloc.

Mr. Netanyahu, born in 1949, a year after Israel came into being, succeeds former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, 77 years old and head of the party for the last decade.

As the winner yesterday, Mr. Netanyahu will automatically become the Likud candidate for prime minister in the next national election, which is not scheduled until 1996 but could come sooner should the current Labor-led government fall.

A final tally of the 145,000 votes, cast Wednesday but only counted yesterday, showed Mr. Netanyahu with 52.1 percent, far more than the 40 percent he needed to avoid a runoff.

Former Foreign Minister David Levy was second with 26.3 percent, followed by Benjamin Begin, a member of Parliament and son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, with 15.1 percent, and former Transportation Minister Moshe Katsav with 6.5 percent.

The challenges to Mr. Netanyahu's primacy may not be over. Former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, for one, says he considers very much alive the issue of who the next Likud candidate for prime minister should be.

Mr. Sharon's preferred candidate is himself.

In the next election, the prime minister will be chosen for the first time by direct popular vote, with personalities and images likely to count at least as much as party policies.

It is clear that as the political culture changes a majority of Likud members consider Mr. Netanyahu -- well-spoken, attractive and savvy in television techniques -- to be their best hope to recover the power they lost nine months ago.

Mr. Netanyahu, a member of Parliament and former deputy foreign minister, left no doubt that he will make the most of a recent surge of anti-Israeli violence to accuse the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of acting weakly against Arab terrorism and of endangering Israeli security by offering territorial concessions in the Middle East peace talks.

"This government says that it is impossible to fight the knifings, that it is impossible to fight terrorism," he told supporters. "How do they put it? Terrorism has only one solution: a political solution. In other words, there is no solution to terrorism except retreat."

In the peace negotiations, the government only offers concessions, he said, and the consequences for Israel will be "to bring the Syrian army on the Golan Heights closer to us, to shrink and reduce the size of this country, to bring the border to the outskirts of Petah Tikvah." That is a town just outside Tel Aviv.

Probably no Israeli politician of his generation is better known in the United States, where Mr. Netanyahu lived as a teen-ager, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later served as Israel's delegate to the United Nations and as No. 2 at the embassy in Washington.

No modern politician here has logged more time on U.S. television than Mr. Netanyahu, explaining Israel's positions in idiomatic English on international terrorism and the Persian Gulf war. And no Israeli politician has adopted a more U.S. campaign style, from his crafted sound bites to his cross-country barnstorming by bus.

A former army commando, he also gained reflected glory from his older brother, Jonathan, who led and died in the 1976 raid at Entebbe, Uganda, in which Israeli commandos rescued the hostage passengers of a hijacked airliner.

The Likud primary was a bruising race, complicated and given spice by a sex scandal that had swirled around the thrice-married Mr. Netanyahu but that inflicted no lasting damage.

His wife, Sara, stood by him during the campaign, and she was at his side yesterday.

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