Netanyahu to run against Sharon in Likud leadership challenge

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Mr Netanyahu, who resigned as finance minister earlier this month in protest at the disengagement from Gaza, will formally announce his universally expected candidacy as leader of Likud this week, according to a Knesset member, Michael Ratzon, one of his supporters.

The prediction came amid more polling evidence that Mr Netanyahu outstrips Mr Sharon among Likud members - a majority of whom opposed disengagement in a party referendum in May last year - while Mr Sharon is far more popular than his rival among the Israeli electorate at large.

The poll in yesterday's Yedioth Ahronot showed that, among registered Likud members, Mr Netanyahu is the preferred leader of 42 per cent over Mr Sharon at 35 per cent. Most estimates assume that Mr Netanyahu currently scores even higher among the activists on the Likud Central Committee who will choose the leader.

But when all voters are asked whom they prefer as Prime Minister, 24 per cent said Mr Sharon with only 16 per cent opting for Mr Netanyahu. Public rejection of Mr Netanyahu's unashamed pitch to the hard-right is further underlined by a finding that, in the absence of Mr Sharon, the voters would prefer the octogenarian Labour leader Shimon Peres as Prime Minister to Mr Netanyahu. The poll also shows a clear majority of Israelis - 54 per cent - favour further dismantling of settlements in the occupied West Bank, compared with 42 per cent who do not.

But Mr Sharon's hopes of mollifying hard-right opponents of Gaza disengagement within Likud could be improved by striking figures published yesterday showing he has presided over another spurt of growth in the West Bank settlements.

While about 9,000 settlers were evacuated from the Gaza area, the Interior Ministry confirmed yesterday that rapid population growth in the settlements continues unabated with 12,800 new settlers arriving there during the previous year to June 2005, bringing the total to 246,000.

The figures will reinforce Palestinian fears that Mr Sharon's strategy has been to disengage from Gaza as a means of consolidating Israel's hold on the West Bank.