Netanyahus mentor launches a bid to unseat prime minister

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suffered a major political embarrassment at the hands of his former political patron.

In a stunning setback for the premier, Moshe Arens said Monday he will seek to replace Netanyahu as the Likud candidate for prime minister in Israel's May 17 elections.

A former Likud foreign minister known for his hawkish views, Arens said he is making the bid in order to save the party from what he called its inevitable defeat if Netanyahu heads the ticket.

The move was a particular blow to Netanyahu because Arens served as his political mentor at the start of the premier's political career and helped him become Israel's ambassador to the United Nations in 1984.

Arens' challenge confirmed the inner turmoil wracking Likud two weeks before party primaries are to be held.

"In my view, my chances of bringing the Likud to victory in [national] elections are better than those of Benjamin Netanyahu," Arens told a Tel Aviv news conference Monday, the deadline for announcing plans to run in the Likud primaries.

Meanwhile, in the Labor Party camp, Knesset member Hagai Meirom said this week that he is bolting the party to join the new centrist party being formed by former army chief Amnon Lipkin Shahak. Meirom's move marked the first defection from the Labor ranks to the center and raised concerns among Labor leaders that it may trigger additional departures.

As for Arens, the veteran Likud diplomat and politician who left public life some six years ago said he felt compelled to act to save the party from total collapse.

"I have watched with concern the crisis gripping the Likud only months before elections. Top Likud members have left the party. Leading members are considering abandoning it," Arens said.

"In recent weeks, many people appealed to me, members of the party and also people on the street, arguing that only I can reinstate the unity of the Likud and bring the Likud to victory in elections."

Arens, who has grown increasingly critical of the prime minister's policies and performance since the premier's election in 1996, acknowledged that his relations with Netanyahu had at one time been like those between a father and son.

"But this does not make a difference in the situation we face today," he said. "We face fateful decisions ahead."

Arens reportedly decided to mount his challenge after surveys showed that 25 percent of Likud Party members support him.

Polls also indicate 6 percent support among Likud members for Uzi Landau, the hawkish chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who has also announced he would run for the Likud leadership.

Arens called on Landau to withdraw his candidacy in the name of party unity.

With the same goal in mind, he said Knesset members Ze'ev "Benny" Begin and Dan Meridor — two former ministers in the Netanyahu government who left Likud to mount their own campaigns — should return to the party fold.

"They will not find a better home elsewhere," he said.

In one good bit of news for the premier, Communications Minister Limor Livnat said Monday she would remain within Likud and support Netanyahu for the party leadership.

The popular Livnat, who had considered joining a new centrist party, said she made her decision because of, not despite, the divisions and difficulties within the party.

"I believe we must rehabilitate the Likud from within," she said.

Netanyahu welcomed her decision and urged Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who has also been thinking of bolting Likud for the centrist party, to avoid such a move.

Regarding Arens' announcement, Netanyahu said he believed such challenges are part of the democratic process — but added that he remained convinced he would be re-elected party leader.