Slim victory for Sharon in Likud poll

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister succeeded by 104 votes in repelling an attempt by embittered far-right opponents of his decision to withdraw from Gaza to push through a Netanyahu-promoted proposal to hold the contest in November instead of February.

Although the vote ­ on a 91 per cent turnout ­ does not guarantee Mr Sharon the leadership of his party in the next election, it is a major setback to the former finance minister's determined effort to unseat him.

Just over half the members of the 3,000-strong central committee heeded the Prime Minister's warning earlier yesterday that the proposal by his rival and former finance minister for a November contest would "seriously damage" the electoral chances of the now deeply divided party that Mr Sharon was crucial to forming 32 years ago.

The warning by Mr Sharon, who had refused to rule out forming a new party if he is thwarted in his own, came as Likud's central committee members voted through the day at the Tel Aviv exhibition grounds in the wake of its meeting which ended in chaotic scenes on Sunday night. Both sides yesterday continued to blame the other for sabotaging the public address system and preventing Mr Sharon from addressing the committee.

Aryeh Naor, a long-time Likud activist and former cabinet secretary in the government of Menachem Begin, said the "dissonance" within the party was between those driven by ideology and by reality.

Mr Naor, a political science professor at Ben Gurion University, added that the party ­ whose formal constitution still seeks to establish an Israeli state over the whole of historic Palestine ­ was now divided between those who were committed as a matter of ideology to "Greater Israel", those like Mr Sharon who wanted to change the party's attitude "but without a declaration of ideological change", and those pursuing jobs and business interests through the party "and want it to be in power no matter what the policy or ideology is".

The latter two groups last night ­ at least for the time being ­ appeared to have combined to form a silent majority against Mr Netanyahu's unbridled leadership ambitions and the extreme right tendency that has infiltrated the party under the leadership of the ultra-fundamentalist Moshe Feiglin. The possibility that Mr Sharon could seek to overcome the Likud crisis by seeking an early general election appeared to have receded last night.

Ruchama Avraham, a pro-Sharon Knesset member, told a cheering crowd at the Tel Aviv exhibition grounds: "The Prime Minister thanks you all."

Mr Netanyahu insisted early today that his camp had "lost the battle but not the war" and that he would still win the leadership contest next year.

But while Mr Netanyahu will be banking on the possibility that a fresh outbreak of armed conflict in the coming months would help to vindicate his argument that disengagement has failed, Sharon supporters will be hoping that the wounds within Likud over the withdrawal will have healed by the time of a February contest.

While the army's targeted killing on Sunday night in Gaza of Mohammed Khalil, the Islamic Jihad military leader in the Strip, may have warmed some on the hard right to Mr Sharon, fear of electoral defeat appears to have been a more potent factor in the vote. Shlomo Levy, editor of a Likud paper, said last night that even some ideological opponents of Mr Sharon had been reluctant to back the naked personal ambitions of Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Sharon's efforts to secure victory in last night's vote nevertheless coincided with a military offensive, which continued yesterday, and which he ordered against Gaza militants following dozens of rocket attacks on Israeli targets at the weekend.

Further air strikes yesterday hit targets including buildings which the army said were used for bomb-making, in the areas of Gaza city ­ where power supplies were disrupted in northern and eastern districts ­ Rafah, and Khan Yunis.

Israeli security sources meanwhile said yesterday that a Hamas cell had abducted and killed an Israeli businessman, Sasson Nuriel, from the east Jerusalem settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev.