JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Contenders to lead Israel”s rightist Likud party wound up their campaigns on Sunday ahead of a vote to pick a successor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after his departure left the long-dominant faction in ruins.
Opinion polls give an edge to ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon”s old rival who resigned as finance minister in protest at the withdrawal of Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation.
Close on Netanyahu”s heels to lead Likud in next March”s general election is Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who has a strong following among Likud”s large electorate of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries.
But whoever wins will take over a party struggling for third place in opinion polls behind Sharon”s new centrist party, Kadima, and centre-left Labour. Likud has led Israel for all but 10 years since first coming to power in 1977.
"I know the Likud has a long road back and we will start it the moment that I win," Netanyahu said.
At a last-minute campaign appearance in Tel Aviv on Sunday, Netanyahu, 56, stressed his rejection of further withdrawals from occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state and a pledge to expand settlements despite U.S. opposition.
"BIBI" RISKS ALL
A loss in the Likud leadership vote could be devastating for Netanyahu”s political career, though he dismissed media reports that he would quit politics or defect to a separate far-right party if he lost on Monday.
The suave "Bibi", who won market applause as finance minister for spending cuts and reforms that helped lift Israel out of recession, has important endorsements from settler leaders.
But his style jars on some of the tens of thousands of rank and file Likud members who will vote for the new leader.
"I aim to unite everyone in a large Likud, to launch a real fight in the coming election," said Shalom, 47.
He wrapped up his campaign with a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism”s holiest prayer site.
The other contenders are Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, who broke ranks with Sharon over the Gaza withdrawal, and Moshe Feiglin, an ultranationalist who leads an ultra-Orthodox faction.
Sharon left Likud, the party he co-founded four decades ago, to capitalise on wide public support for his Gaza withdrawal, after party rebels vowed to unseat him for the move they denounced as a surrender to violence.
Many former Likud members of parliament have joined Sharon, who has promised more peace moves while also pledging to keep large West Bank settlement blocs.
A revitalised Labour party under fiery former union leader Amir Peretz is expected to easily push Likud into third place at the general election.