Ex-aide to premier latest to enter Israel election fray

JERUSALEM — Vowing to dethrone Israel's "elitist establishment," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former right-hand man launched a new political party this week.

The new immigrant-rights party launched Monday by Avigdor Lieberman is the latest of a flurry of new parties to emerge since the Knesset voted last month to call elections — now scheduled for May 17.

But political observers believe that this party, unlike the others, is aimed at rallying support for the beleaguered premier.

Meanwhile, as expected, former army chief Amnon Lipkin Shahak formally announced Wednesday his intention to run for prime minister. The new centrist party will likely include a number of seasoned Israeli politicians, including Dan Meridor, Yitzhak Mordechai, Haim Ramon, Roni Milo and Limor Livnat.

At the same time, the man known as Netanyahu's mentor said he would run for head of the Likud Party if there was enough grass roots support for his candidacy. Moshe Arens, a cabinet member in previous Likud governments, said Netanyahu should be held responsible for defections by top lawmakers in the party.

Other senior Likud ministers and Knesset members reportedly have been discussing the possibility of quitting the Likud faction together and electing an alternative candidate as party leader and prime minister.

Lieberman, who said his motive for forming the party is that he has been rejected by the Likud leadership, said he will do everything in his power to get Netanyahu elected prime minister. Sources close to Lieberman, however, said that if Netanyahu loses, Lieberman may join a coalition with the winner.

The controversial director general of the Prime Minister's Office until his resignation in November 1997, Lieberman launched the new Israel, Our Home Party with pledges to limit the power of the Supreme Court and cut back the police force.

At his press conference, Lieberman said the country has turned into a "bureaucratic dictatorship" and a police state ruled by an oligarchy, which runs the state through the Supreme Court, the police, the State Attorney's Office, and the Treasury's budget division.

"This is the war of democracy against oligarchy," he said.

Observers described Lieberman's populist rhetoric as dangerous, and Netanyahu distanced himself from the former Soviet emigre's attack on the Supreme Court.

"I'm not a party to Lieberman's sweeping attacks on the judiciary and law enforcement authorities," Netanyahu said after Lieberman's news conference in Tel Aviv.

A statement from the Prime Minister's Office called Lieberman's remarks divisive and said the addition of another party increases the fragmentation of the political system.

A former bouncer known for his brusque manner, Lieberman has been the subject of police inquiries. He railed against what he said was abuse of power in government.

"There is no doubt that the Supreme Court has more power than the prime minister," Lieberman said. "And the head of the Supreme Court was not even elected."

An emigre from the former Soviet Union in 1979, Lieberman said his new party could draw voters who previously supported the Yisrael Ba'Aliyah immigrant-rights party, which won seven Knesset seats in its first political bid in the 1996 elections.

The head of that party, Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, has yet to take an official stand for or against Netanyahu in the upcoming elections.