Likud faithful set to elect leader for a new generation: Benjamin Netanyahu, darling of the CNN chatshows during the Gulf war, hopes to be crowned prince of the Israeli right

BIBI-FANS show appreciation for their favourite candidate with a chorus of gorilla-like grunts, which came long and loud at a final campaign rally in Tel Aviv. Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu, they believe, is about to become the next leader of Israel's Likud Party.

The crowds also showed appreciation for their favourite candidate's wife, seated beside him on the stage. 'We love you, Bibi, and we love you too, Sarah,' they shouted, as she squirmed before 2,000 staring, prurient eyes. Her ill-disguised discomfiture showed she knew they 'loved' her for one reason only: in the tradition of political wives, she had decided to stick by her husband, despite it all.

In January it had seemed, briefly, that Mr Netanyahu's chances of winning the race for leadership of Likud, and restoring vitality to the Israeli right after its defeat in last year's election, might be threatened by scandal after he walked on to a television chat show to confess to adultery.

The startling performance by Israel's foremost television politician, former paratrooper and ambassador to the United Nations, was - or so he claimed - intended to forestall a smear campaign orchestrated by his rival in the Likud race, David Levy. The two men have been bitterly clawing at each other ever since.

But Bibi - with Sarah's co-operation - has nevertheless minimised the damage to his public image. 'Who is the only candidate capable of bringing down this government? I can bring the Likud back to power. If I didn't think that I could do it, I wouldn't be on this stage,' said Mr Netanyahu, rocking his stocky frame, which is coarser in the flesh than under his beloved television lights.

If all the polls are right, Mr Netanyahu will indeed be chosen as the new Likud leader, to succeed Yitzhak Shamir, when 250,000 Likud members vote today in the party's first leadership primaries.

His nearest rival, Mr Levy, who was born in Morocco, has failed to capitalise on his grassroots support in poorer Sephardi, or Middle Eastern, Jewish neighbourhoods. Another rival, Benny Begin, has attacked Mr Netanyahu as a man of 'tricks and gimmicks' but he has failed to project the charisma of his father, Menachem Begin, who swept Likud to power in 1977. Trailing behind the rest is Moshe Katsav, a former minister, with less than 10 per cent of support.

Mr Netanyahu, remembered in the West for his verve on CNN television during the Gulf war, has boisterously charmed his supporters with a Clinton-style campaign. Some say he even enjoyed the notoriety of having his own Gennifer Flowers affair.

If elected, there is no doubt that Mr Netanyahu will bring a new image to Israeli politics. He will be the first of the so-called Likud princes - or younger generation - to have made it to the top of his party. He will be the first man competing to lead the country who was born in Israel after Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

During the 1956 Sinai war Mr Netanyahu was six. During the Six- Day War he was 17. In comparison with the geriatric class of Israeli leaders, Mr Netanyahu learnt about the Holocaust at school. In the next election in three years' time, Mr Netanyahu will be 46 and the Labour Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, will be 74.

Whether Mr Netanyahu will bring any new substance to Israeli politics is another matter. In Tel Aviv he had little new to say. Policies were boiled down to sound- bites only - and tough uncompromising bites at that.

While Mr Levy, the former foreign minister under Mr Shamir, is known as a moderate in Likud circles, and Benny Begin as a thoughtful ideologue, Mr Netanyahu is as hardline as they come. He makes clear he will fight to retain every inch of the occupied territories. He equates Israel's security with keeping Eretz Israel - the biblical land of Israel from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. And lined up on his campaign platform were the mayors of most of the big West Bank Jewish settlements. He has held up the bogey of Mr Rabin's plans for 'territorial compromise', particularly over the Golan Heights, several times during the campaign.

As security has risen to the top of the agenda, Mr Netanyahu has exploited Mr Rabin's impotence. He has promised to bring down the Labour government within months. For now, this looks like a wild claim, if only because Mr Levy could weaken Likud by forcing a split. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that of all the candidates, Mr Netanyahu is the greatest threat to Mr Rabin.

(Photograph omitted)

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