Israeli Prime Minister Narrowly Wins Vote Within Likud Party
By Greg Myre
THE NEW YORK TIMES
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL
Ariel Sharon narrowly won a crucial vote on Monday in his right-wing Likud Party, fending off a challenge from his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was seeking to oust him as party leader and prime minister.
The issue was seemingly mundane: the Likud Central Committee’s 3,000 members voted on whether to hold an election for party leader in April, as Sharon wanted, or move it up to November, as Netanyahu sought.
But with many Likud voters angry over Sharon’s withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, the issue became a referendum on his leadership. If Netanyahu had won the vote on Monday, he would have had a strong chance of replacing Sharon as party leader in just two months, and in turn, Sharon’s coalition government would have faced an almost certain collapse.
However, Sharon eked out a slim victory, as Likud decided to hold the primary in April by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, according to Likud officials.
As a result, Sharon and his government appear safe, at least for the moment. Israel is not required to have national elections until November 2006.
Still, the close race showed that Sharon can expect a tough battle if he faces Netanyahu in the race for party leader next spring, in advance of national elections.
Heading into the voting on Monday at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, several opinion polls gave Netanyahu a slight edge. But a large turnout, with more than 90 percent of the Central Committee members voting, appeared to help Sharon.
Sharon said it would be “suicide” for Likud to drive him from office and force early elections, which would risk the party’s control of the government.
“I hope that members of the party will come to vote against this proposal, which will badly harm Likud,” Sharon said Monday afternoon when he arrived to cast his ballot.
Opinion surveys show that Sharon remains broadly popular with the Israeli public, and that Likud would fare much better in national elections with him as party leader rather than Netanyahu, who was prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
Netanyahu, who quit as finance minister in August, wanted a vote on the party leadership as soon as possible to capitalize on the frustration that many Likud voters felt over the Gaza withdrawal.