Infighting erupts in Israeli premier's Likud Party

Netanyahu announces intent to challenge Sharon

party opposed pullout

August 31, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM - Fresh from the successful removal of thousands of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon now finds himself facing a political revolt from his one-time allies.

Rebels within Sharon's dominant Likud party are moving to topple the prime minister, force early elections and replace him with rival Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced yesterday his intention to challenge Sharon for Likud's leadership.

Some Sharon supporters are urging the prime minister to fight back by abandoning the party he helped found three decades ago and forming a new centrist group. Others expect him to battle to stay on top in Likud.

"I see a reshuffling coming," said Uri Dromi, who was a spokesman for former Labor Party Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Sharon's No. 2 in the coalition government. "The party system has ceased to reflect the true political aspirations of the people."

The turmoil comes as Sharon oversees the final stages of razing all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and handing over the land to the Palestinian government.

Sharon won high marks from most Israelis for his handling of the settlement shutdown, which was completed with almost no violence and in far less time than expected.

But Sharon alienated his party by pushing through the plan even though two-thirds of Likud members had rejected the idea in a party vote.

Netanyahu, a former prime minister who was Sharon's finance minister, resigned in protest days before the withdrawal.

Yesterday, Netanyahu accused Sharon of betraying Likud's principles and creating a political vacuum in the Gaza Strip that would be filled by militant groups intent on destroying Israel.

Sharon had anticipated Netanyahu's move. On Monday, he blasted Netanyahu in a television interview, saying his rival lacked the sound judgment and courage to lead Israel.

The rivalry promises to unsettle Israel's political landscape.

While polls show that Sharon's Gaza pullout was widely popular among Israelis, they also show that most Likud members are with Netanyahu. More than 600 signed a petition compelling their central committee to vote Sept. 26 on whether to hold internal primaries within the following 60 days.

Should the primaries be held and Netanyahu win, it would almost certainly lead to the collapse of Sharon's coalition government and force early elections. Currently, elections are scheduled for November 2006.

"It's time you stop running away from the voters," Netanyahu said in announcing his challenge. "These are the voters who elected you, who sent you. Stand before them. Present your policies, defend your policies, like I have presented my policies here, and let them decide and respect their decision."

Some analysts say they believe Sharon won't bother to fight for the Likud leadership and instead will join with moderate allies to form a centrist party - a tactic known in Israel as the "big bang."

"He's one of these leaders who is like an architect," said Shmuel Sandler, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University. "He destroys and builds and destroys and builds and builds and destroys."

But such a move would be a calculated risk for Sharon - centrist parties have a spotty track record in Israel - and his advisers said they expect him to stay in Likud.

Israeli author Uri Dan, who's known Sharon for decades, said he thought Sharon would likely benefit from Netanyahu's reputation for political missteps. Asked if he thought Netanyahu might shoot himself in the foot, Dan offered a wry prediction:

"Regretfully, in the head," he said.

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