Sharon wins critical Likud vote

He rebuffs leadership challenge by Netanyahu


JERUSALEM --- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon narrowly subdued last night a revolt within his ruling Likud Party, whose hard-line members sought to repudiate his leadership because of his decision to end Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip.

In an extremely tight vote, members of the Likud Central Committee defeated a proposal by Sharon's chief rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, to hold an early party leadership primary and force early elections.

Although a seemingly minor question of timing, the issue voted on by 3,000 committee members was widely viewed as a referendum on Sharon's leadership that would have a huge impact on the future of Sharon's government and on the Middle East peace process.

With more than 90 percent of committee members voting, 1,433 members, or 51.8 percent, voted against moving up the date of the primary, while 1,329 members, or 48.1 percent voted in favor.

If Sharon had lost the vote, the 77-year-old former general, who is popular among Israeli voters, probably would have resigned from Likud and started a new political party.

Netanyahu, 55, a former prime minister who quit Sharon's Cabinet in protest of last month's Gaza withdrawal, had hoped to capitalize on the Likud leadership's anger with Sharon to seize control of the party.

The party leadership primary will be held as scheduled early next year. General elections are to be held by November 2006.

Conceding defeat last night, Netanyahu vowed to challenge Sharon again in the party primary.

"We lost by a very few votes. There is a very large camp that went against the flow, against the wind, against the pressure, against the leadership and against the temptations," Netanyahu said last night.

Yesterday's vote illustrated competing visions of Israel within Likud.

Led by Netanyahu, the settlers and far-right members of Likud felt betrayed by Sharon, whom they once counted among their most faithful allies.

The master builder of Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, Sharon surprised his longtime supporters and his party by evacuating settlers in the Gaza Strip and the thousands of soldiers who protected them.

During a Likud meeting Sunday, Sharon was heckled by his opponents. He was unable to deliver his address after the microphone system failed, the result of sabotage by his opponents, Likud officials said.

Despite his problems within Likud, Sharon's Gaza plan had the backing of the majority of Israelis, who could no longer see the sense, politically or economically, in supporting and defending 8,500 Jewish settlers living among 1.3 million Palestinians.

Sharon, perhaps the most controversial of Israel's leaders, earned a rare moment of respect and goodwill from much of the world in recent weeks because of the successful withdrawal.

But within his party he has been under siege by opponents who fear that the Gaza pullout is a retreat that will strengthen militant groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Weekend violence, including a barrage of rocket attacks launched by Hamas, appeared to lend credence to their fears.

Still, Sharon warned party members that a vote against him would be political suicide, destroying their ruling party and cutting short his government.

"I hope the central committee members will come to vote against the proposal, which will seriously damage the Likud," Sharon said yesterday.

Yesterday's vote was held amid continued violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Despite a pledge by Hamas leaders to end attacks against Israel, the Israeli military pressed ahead with its offensive against Gaza and the West Bank.

Israeli airstrikes yesterday hit targets around Gaza City and the southern towns of Rafah and Khan Yunis, knocking out power to the eastern part of Gaza City and causing damage but no injuries, the Associated Press reported.

Israeli security officials said a West Bank Hamas cell kidnapped and killed an Israeli businessman from northern Jerusalem.

The body of the businessman was found in the industrial zone near Ramallah yesterday. He had disappeared last week.

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