- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Netanyahu’s gains on Gaza wane

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has erased much of Benjamin Netanyahu’s once-commanding lead in a Likud Party leadership race triggered by the evacuation of Israel’s Gaza Strip settlements, a poll showed yesterday.

Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Sharon’s chief rival in their rightist Likud, is trying to unseat the prime minister as head of their ruling party, a move that could bring down the government, force early elections and put peacemaking with the Palestinians on hold.

A poll of Likud members in the left-leaning Ha’aretz newspaper had Mr. Sharon narrowing the gap with Mr. Netanyahu after earlier surveys showed him in deep trouble in his own party, which is bitterly divided over the removal of 8,500 Gaza settlers last month.

Since then, Mr. Sharon has tried to curry favor with Likud hard-liners by vowing to expand West Bank settlement blocs despite U.S. pressure for a construction freeze. Washington, which sees the pullout as a catalyst for renewed peace moves, hopes Mr. Sharon can beat back Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge.

The latest poll showed Mr. Netanyahu with 44 percent support to Mr. Sharon’s 38 percent. It marked a swing of 10.5 percentage points from the paper’s last survey 11 days ago.

Mr. Netanyahu quit as finance minister last month in protest against the withdrawal from occupied Gaza, a plan Mr. Sharon has billed as “disengagement” from conflict with the Palestinians.

The 55-year-old former prime minister has become a hero to Likud hard-liners who say the pullout, the first removal of settlements from land Palestinians want for a state, betrays Jewish claims on biblical land and rewards Palestinian violence.

Palestinians welcomed the Gaza pullout, but are angry at Mr. Sharon’s insistence that Israel hold onto portions of West Bank lands occupied along with Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.

Mr. Netanyahu declared his challenge to Mr. Sharon last week and wants the party to hold a primary in November. If Mr. Netanyahu wins, a general election could be held as early as February.

Mr. Sharon, 77, once the godfather of the settler movement, is working behind the scenes to convince Likud officials to hold the primary as scheduled around April 2006 and put off national elections, which are not due until November of next year.

He wants to buy time, hoping memories of the trauma and tears of uprooted settlers will fade within the traditionally pro-settlement Likud. Mr. Sharon is also trying to persuade Likud’s members that he is the best bet for keeping the party in power.

Surveys show Mr. Sharon has far greater support than Mr. Netanyahu among voters as a whole, fueling speculation that he could break away and form a new centrist party if rejected by Likud.

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