- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

TEL AVIV — Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared yesterday that he will challenge Ariel Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party, attacking the Israeli leader for pulling out of the Gaza Strip without getting anything in return from the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu, who held the foreign and then finance portfolios in the Sharon government, resigned only days before the military evicted settlers from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu, who if successful would be the party’s candidate for prime minister in elections next year, portrayed Mr. Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and areas of the West Bank as a concession in the war on terrorism and a betrayal of the Likud faithful.

“Ariel Sharon abandoned the principles of the Likud, and chose a different path — the path of the left,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a press conference in Tel Aviv.

“Sharon gave, gave and gave. The Palestinians received, received and received. And I ask, ‘What have we gotten?’ Nothing.”

The battle for the leadership of Likud — which means “unity” in Hebrew — increases the likelihood that the Likud-led coalition will dissolve parliament and move to elections well before its mandate expires in November 2006. Such a campaign probably would put off any new push for peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The fragile state of the Likud Party was in evidence at yesterday’s press conference, during which a Sharon supporter began heckling Mr. Netanyahu, prompting a commotion with yelling and shoving.

Mr. Netanyahu was flanked by like-minded Likud lawmakers who spent most of the past year attacking Mr. Sharon over the pullout plan. But the most prominent Likud “rebel,” Uzi Landau, stayed away from the press conference and criticized Mr. Netanyahu for remaining in Mr. Sharon’s Cabinet until early this month.

On the other side of Israel’s political map, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak unexpectedly bowed out of a race for the Labor Party chairmanship, throwing his weight behind Shimon Peres, the chairman and front-runner to lead the Labor Party in a sixth general election campaign.

In a pre-emptive strike a day earlier, Mr. Sharon said in a television interview that Mr. Netanyahu was unfit to serve as prime minister. “During times of pressure, he immediately becomes tense and confused,” Mr. Sharon said.

A series of newspaper polls have shown Mr. Netanyahu with a virtually insurmountable lead over Mr. Sharon among Likud members.

That has spurred speculation that the prime minister will break ranks with the party he helped establish in the mid-1970s. Some have suggested that he could join with Mr. Peres and Yosef Lapid, the leader of the centrist Shinui party, to establish a political alignment straddling the center of Israeli politics.

Others think Mr. Sharon will be scared off by previous failed attempts by prominent politicians to set up sustainable centrist parties.

“There needs to be a realignment, because the dominant party for the last 20 years is going through a severe identity crisis. No one who votes for Likud today knows what they’re voting for,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.

“It’s as if the Republicans would be split between the moral majority and the more moderate pro-business wing. Here, we’re talking about the core salient ideological issue of Israeli politics ripping the Likud right down the middle.”

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