So who isnt running for prime minister

JERUSALEM — Running for prime minister is suddenly as popular in Israel as chatting on cell phones.

As each day passed this week, another Israeli politician announced his intention to run for the premiership or strongly hinted at it.

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, forced last week to accede to early elections due to problems surrounding the Wye accord, is busy trying to recapture the popular appeal that catapulted him into his position 2-1/2 years ago.

His struggle will be a long one. Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak agreed on a four-month campaign, with the election now set for May 17.

If there is a runoff in the race for prime minister, as is widely expected, the final vote will take place June 1.

And how could there not be? Names once familiar only to Israelis and hard-core Israel watchers were suddenly on the pages of newspapers around the globe — Amnon Lipkin Shahak, Dan Meridor, Rafael Eitan.

At the same time, politicians of various stripes were switching parties and allegiances more frequently than they change their socks.

Barak and David Levy, Gesher leader and former foreign minister under Netanyahu, agreed in principle Tuesday to cooperate in the elections. Levy will support Barak for prime minister, and Labor will give Gesher several slots on its election slate.

In hopes of countering the appeal of Shahak, the former army chief of staff, Barak set about persuading Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai to forge an alliance with him.

Shahak, who is forming a centrist party, said he is close to a deal with former Finance Minister Meridor, and that he would like both Communications Minister Limor Livnat and Mordechai join them.

Israeli President Ezer Weizman, meanwhile, urged Barak and Shahak to join forces to unseat Netanyahu.

Adding to the three-ring political circus, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon stated Monday night that "under certain circumstances" he would consider running for prime minister. The previous day he had told the Likud central committee that he didn't want the position.

Ze'ev "Benny" Begin, a Likud Knesset member and former science minister, made his own announcement Monday. Son of the late Likud founder and Prime Minister Menachem Begin, he is forming a new right-wing bloc and planning to run for prime minister as its head.

Tsomet leader Eitan also is reportedly planning to run for prime minister.

Without all the switching and baiting, the party with the most to lose right now is Likud. Meridor and Begin's decisions to leave their party are only the beginning.

Mordechai and Livnat, two other popular Likud figures, went public this week with their separate soul-searchings over whether to quit the Likud and seek safe havens in the emerging centrist grouping.

With all of that swirling around him, Netanyahu sought this week to rally the Likud rank and file, giving a fiery speech before the Likud central committee.

The "real task is not the election," he asserted, but what will come after, when Israel will have to negotiate with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese.

"It will not be easy," he said, adding that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat is "talking about a Palestinian state along the lines of 1967, perhaps even a Palestinian state along the borders of 1947, with partition lines and the right of return to areas within the Green Line."

Netanyahu already knows he is struggling. He is trailing in the polls behind Barak, Shahak and Meridor.

Still, even those who malign Netanyahu do not deny he is a fighter. He came from behind in 1996, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, to snatch the prime ministership that Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, thought was firmly in his grasp.

And Netanyahu is the sitting tenant. The dual persona of underdog and incumbent is, in the view of some pros, the optimal starting point for a tough election campaign.

As prime minister, with four long months at his disposal, Netanyahu can still pull an ace or two from his sleeve — and all the other wannabes are undisguisedly anxious at that prospect.

The politicians crowding the center have been heard voicing apprehensions that Netanyahu, despite his present hawkish posture, may find a way over the next four months to make a breakthrough in the peace process with the Palestinians.

Certainly, that prospect has not seemed likely in his initial campaigning. But with Begin preparing to attack him from the hard-line right, and with the Oslo accords demonstrably still supported by a substantial majority of Israelis, Netanyahu might yet tack to the center to undercut both Barak and Shahak.

Another scenario bandied about has Netanyahu launching a military action in Lebanon or elsewhere, with at least a passing thought to the electoral benefits thatcould bring him.

On the domestic front, Netanyahu's calculation in engineering a long campaign seems to have been that Shahak — who retired earlier this year as Israel Defense Force chief of staff and is currently the front-runner in the polls — will inevitably lose ground as he moves away from the glow of his military past and is exposed to the hurly-burly of a campaign.

That is presumably why Barak — who is even more directly threatened by Shahak — went along with the prime minister on selecting a distant date for the election. By law, the election could have been held after 60 days, or as early as the end of February.

Netanyahu probably reasons, too, that once the Likud leadership race and candidate-selection process have been completed this month, the tensions tearing at the party will subside.

Only Knesset member Uzi Landau so far has declared his candidacy for the Likud leadership — Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert toyed with the idea but dropped it. As a result, Netanyahu is confident of his standing within his own party.

The challenge he faces, however, is daunting, chiefly because it comes from both sides.

To the left, the much-respected Meridor, a close confidant of Menachem Begin and later of Yitzhak Shamir, is determined to deny Netanyahu the premiership. To the right, Benny Begin is no less disparaging toward the prime minister's credibility.

Both men, universally upheld as honest and honorable, both with long and intimate experience of work alongside prime ministers, asserted that Netanyahu is not the man for the job. And both plainly intend to keep on saying so throughout the campaign.

That will be damaging indeed for the prime minister. His efforts last week to dismiss Meridor as a "leftist" and a "careerist" exploded in his face, as longtime Likud stalwarts lined up to excoriate Netanyahu and extol the former finance minister, whom the premier drove from his cabinet a year ago.

Netanyahu would not dare insult Begin, who carries his father's name and prestige.

Let the games begin.

Jerusalem Post Service contributed to this report.