Right-winger to fight recovering Sharon

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The Independent Online

Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who was in hospital last night making what was said to be a rapid recovery from a stroke, is facing a right-wing challenge for the premiership from his arch-rival and opponent Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sylvan Shalom, the Foreign Minister, conceded defeat last night to Mr Netanyahu in the race to lead Likud, which Mr Sharon deserted last month to form his own breakaway party.

Mr Shalom's move followed a series of television exit polls suggesting that Mr Netanyahu, an outright opponent of disengagement from Gaza, had beaten Mr Shalom by 47 per cent to 32 per cent in the contest. The rightward shift in the party Mr Sharon, 77, helped form more than 30 years ago before abandoning it was underlined by the exit poll finding showing the extreme Jewish nationalist Moshe Feiglin had secured 15 per cent of the overall vote.

Senior doctors and government officials went out of their way to predict that the Prime Minister would make a complete recovery from the stroke which afflicted him on Sunday night. Aides to Mr Sharon predicted that the Israeli Prime Minister would "return to full capacity gradually" after a mild attack that a doctor treating him said would "not leave behind any damage or traces".

Dr Tamir Ben-Hur, the chief neurologist at the Hadassah University Hospital to which Mr Sharon, 77, was rushed after feeling unwell on Sunday night, said: "There's an excellent chance it won't repeat itself. After a rest, he can return to full functioning."

As senior officials of Mr Sharon's new breakaway party, Kadima, absorbed the impact of what had been the first serious setback since its launch last month, the hospital said it hoped to discharge him today for rest at home after more tests. Mr Sharon has reportedly been walking around his room and joking with officials. A senior ally of Mr Sharon sought at once to rule out any notion that his future as leader could be in doubt, while simultaneously disputing the widespread view in political circles that Kadima's potential is almost wholly dependent on the Prime Minister himself.

Ehud Olmert, the Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, who is technically in charge during Mr Sharon's recuperation, told Israel Radio that "whoever votes for Sharon will get Sharon ... It is a wild exaggeration to say that Kadima is just Ariel Sharon."

The Transport Minister, Meir Sheetrit, told Channel 2 television that Kadima "is not just one man. It is a [political] path."

At the same time, an unnamed Kadima member of the Knesset underlined party fears that Mr Sharon's health could become an election issue in comments toHa'aretz newspaper.

The upbeat reports of Mr Sharon's condition, who suffered a minor blood clot caused by a relatively common heart malfunction, came amid exit polls showing Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister and finance minister, had decisively won the contest to replace him as leader of Likud, the party Mr Sharon abandoned in advance of next March's general election.

Although Mr Sharon may relish a contest against Mr Netanyahu, indications were that he would have preferred Mr Shalom to win the Likud contest, not least because it would have widened his options for a post-election coalition. With Mr Netanyahu as Likud leader Mr Sharon could be more dependent on Labour, under its new Labour leader, Amir Peretz, as a coalition partner, if he ends up leading the biggest single party.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's President, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, were among non-Israeli leaders who sent Mr Sharon good wishes. In Gaza City, militants from the small but hardline Popular Resistance Committees fired guns in the air and handed out pastries to motorists in celebration of the news that Mr Sharon was ill.