Netanyahu attacks Gaza pull-out

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Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's right-wing Finance Minister, has coupled a stinging denunciation of Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan with his clearest assertion yet that he is determined to succeed him as Prime Minister.

In two newspaper interviews, Mr Netanyahu, a former prime minister, was studiedly coy about confirming that he intended to challenge Mr Sharon for the Likud Party leadership ahead of a general election which has to take place before November 2006.

And in terms which will disappoint some of the most extreme opponents of the plan to withdraw 8,500 settlers in Gaza, he all but acknowledged that the last chance to reverse the plan had been lost. "I think that's been decided," he said.

But he sought to define himself as the standard-bearer of hard-right disenchantment with Mr Sharon by saying in Yediot Ahronot that unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would be a "prize for terrorism... morally and practically".

And he told the Jerusalem Post: "If you ask me 'do you think I can lead this country, am I ready to do so?'... the answer is yes."

* Israel has provoked a furious reaction from Palestinian leaders by closing two voter registration offices in East Jerusalem, saying that all voting arrangements within the city had to be "co-ordinated" with Israel.