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Elections May Come Early As Netanyahu Challenges Sharon<P>By Greg Myre THE NEW YORK TIMES <P>JERUSALEM <P>

Elections May Come Early As

Netanyahu Challenges Sharon

By Greg Myre


Benjamin Netanyahu ’75, a former prime minister, announced on Tuesday that he intended to challenge the current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, as leader of the ruling Likud Party, a move that threatened the coalition government and increased the likelihood of early elections.

The two men are longtime rivals in the right-wing Likud Party. Netanyahu quit as finance minister this month to protest Sharon’s decision to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

Sharon “has abandoned the way of Likud, and chose another way, the way of the left,” Netanyahu said at a Tel Aviv news conference, accompanied by a number of Likud legislators.

“Sharon gave and gave and gave some more, and the Palestinians got more and more and more. And what did we get in return? The answer is: Nothing, nothing and nothing.”

Netanyahu’s challenge was widely expected, but even in Israel’s tumultuous politics, it was still an unusual development. The Israeli news media described it as the first time members of the party in power have sought to unseat their leader.

“A normal party does not voluntarily curtail its own time in the leadership,” the journalist Sima Kadmon wrote in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest-circulation daily.

Sharon has been in office four and a half years, a very long time in a country where coalition governments routinely collapse before completing their terms.

Sharon’s major program, the Gaza pullout, went much more smoothly than predicted. He remains broadly popular, and Israel is not required to hold elections until November 2006.

But Sharon angered many Likud members when he announced the withdrawal a year and a half ago, and party hardliners, led by Netanyahu, are now making a major push to oust him.

The showdown will play out over the next several months. Likud’s central committee plans to meet Sept. 25 to consider setting an election date to choose the party leader. That ballot could be held in late November.

Netanyahu’s selection as party leader would virtually guarantee the collapse of Sharon’s coalition government. And if the government fell, national elections would be held within three months.

Several recent opinion polls have shown Netanyahu, 55, well ahead of Sharon in surveys of Likud members.

The two have been sharply critical of each other recently, and Sharon, 77, aimed a pointed personal attack at Netanyahu in a television interview broadcast on Monday evening.

“To run this country, to deal with the most complex and difficult problems, you need judgment and nerves of steel,” Sharon said. “He has neither. In a situation of pressure, he gets stressed immediately. He panics and loses control. I’ve seen him like that more than once, many times.”

Sharon has indicated that he wants to continue as the Likud leader through the next election, though he would prefer not to have it early. The party has 40 of the 120 seats in the parliament, twice as many as the left-leaning Labor Party, the next largest party, which is a member of the majority coalition.