- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon narrowly defeated Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu in a crucial party vote yesterday, turning back an attempt among hard-liners to bring down the Israeli leader over the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon won the contest by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent — a difference of just 104 ballots — as the right-wing Likud Central Committee rejected a proposal by Mr. Netanyahu to advance a party primary from March to November.

Though a technical question, Mr. Sharon’s victory in resisting the rescheduling strengthens the likelihood that Israel’s next general election will be held on its originally scheduled date of November 2006 rather than in the spring.

It also staves off a split within Likud, which has dominated Israeli governments for the better part of the last three decades. But politicians and analysts said that the ideological rift in the party brought on by the exit from Gaza has only been postponed.

Mr. Netanyahu, who bitterly opposed the Gaza pullout, hoped an earlier primary and the fresh bitterness within the party would give him a better chance to unseat the prime minister.

Mr. Sharon, who had trailed for weeks in polls among Likud’s leading activists, had hinted that he would abandon the party altogether and form his own party if he lost yesterday’s balloting.

In the run-up to the balloting, Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters portrayed the vote as a choice of Likud’s traditional staunch opposition to territorial compromise versus what they assailed as Mr. Sharon’s embrace of the Israeli left’s policy of land concessions.

But just minutes after the vote, it was Mr. Sharon’s backers who claimed the ideological high ground.

“Today, the path of the Likud was determined as the path of Ariel Sharon,” said Likud lawmaker Roni Bar-On.

Public opinion polls indicate that an independent political party led by Mr. Sharon would double the number of parliamentary seats received by a Netanyahu-led Likud or even the leftist Labor Party.

Mr. Sharon won despite a barrage of rocket attacks on Israel only weeks after the Israeli pullout, intensifying conservative criticism of the Gaza move.

Israel’s air force yesterday bombed the Gaza Strip for a third day in retaliation for attacks on Israeli communities just over the border. The air force yesterday hit open fields used as launch pads for rocket fire after killing a senior Islamic Jihad leader Sunday night.

Israeli aircraft fired missiles again at the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun early today, witnesses said, destroying two bridges that military sources said were used by Palestinian rocket crews. No one was hurt in the strike.

In an attempt to ease the escalation of tensions over the weekend, the leadership of the Islamic militant group Hamas said Sunday it would stop using Gaza as a base to launch rockets into Israel.

Hamas fired dozens of missiles over the weekend, accusing Israel of triggering explosions at an Islamist rally in the Gaza town of Jabaliya that killed nearly two dozen.

Palestinian Authority officials blamed the explosion on Hamas itself, ratcheting up public pressure on the Islamic militants to put a stop to the attacks.

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