‘Bibi’ seeks to lead Likud, replace Sharon

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday that he would challenge Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for leadership of the ruling Likud Party and replace him as premier, setting off a bitter fight that could shake up Israeli politics and paralyse Mideast peacemaking.

Appealing to his hawkish supporters, Netanyahu lashed out at Sharon for his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip — accusing him of creating a de facto Palestinian state — and said he would take a far tougher stance towards the Palestinians.

“Sharon gave and gave and gave, the Palestinians got and got and got, and my question is what did we get? Nothing, and nothing and nothing,” Netanyahu said.

The announcement by Netanyahu, a former prime minister who is leading Sharon in party polls, had been expected since he resigned as finance minister three weeks ago to protest the Gaza withdrawal.

The political turmoil sparked by the leadership battle will likely delay efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace moves following the pullout, which is to be completed in the coming weeks. A bruising fight inside Likud could rip the party apart and lead to a major political realignment ahead of national elections that are scheduled for November 2006 but could come earlier if Sharon’s shaky governing coalition collapses.

Palestinian officials are also hesitant to push for peace talks ahead of their own parliamentary election set for January.

The Sharon-Netanyahu battle burst into the open after a party tribunal ruled Monday that the 3,000-member Likud Central Committee, stacked with Netanyahu supporters, could set a primary date in a September 25 vote.

Netanyahu would benefit from a quick leadership contest.

Sharon, whose standing in the hardline party plunged because of his Gaza pullout plan, needs more time to reposition himself and stage a comeback.

Some Sharon confidantes have advised the prime minister to leave the party he helped found three decades ago and create a new centrist party with Likud moderates, capitalising on the broad popularity Sharon enjoys among the general public.

A Netanyahu-led Likud is expected to win far fewer than the 40 seats that Likud, the largest party, currently holds in the 120-member parliament.

Senior Likud officials warned that party infighting could leave it badly weakened and out of power.

“It’s certainly true that when the Labour Party does its election campaign spots, it won’t have much work to do,” Gideon Saar, Likud’s parliamentary chief, told Israel’s Channel 2 TV.

Former premier Ehud Barak of Labour responded to the Likud turmoil by calling on all candidates for Labour leader to unite behind elder statesman Shimon Peres, currently the vice premier. “Shimon Peres is far preferable to Sharon and Netanyahu,” he told Channel 10 TV.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a strong Sharon ally, said Netanyahu planned to steer Likud, and the country, into the hands of the hardline extremists.

“What he wants to do is take the state of Israel back into diplomatic isolation, economic boycott, internal disputes, into disagreement with the United States — our greatest friend — Europe and the rest of the world,” he told Israel TV.

The broadsides began even before Netanyahu’s announcement.

On Monday, Sharon attacked his rival, who earned a reputation for political recklessness as prime minister from 1996-99, as prone to panic and unfit to lead.

“To run this country, to deal with the most complex and difficult problems, you need judgement and nerves of steel.

He (Netanyahu) has neither of these two things,” Sharon said.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that he was confident he would strengthen Likud. “I intend to lead the party to victory in the coming elections and form the next government,” he said as cheering supporters chanted his nickname, “Bibi.” He criticised Sharon, saying the premier betrayed the party and “trampled on” its values by pulling out of Gaza. “He abandoned the principles of the Likud. He chose a different path, the path of the left,” Netanyahu said.

He also accused his rival of setting up a de facto Palestinian state in Gaza.

“You ask if there will be a (Palestinian) state. It’s already been created, the question now is what it will be like,” he said.

Israeli analysts said Likud hardliners were so bent on revenge they didn’t seem to care if their machinations and self-inflicted wounds brought down the party.

“Sharon’s problem is that the Likud has stopped acting rationally, and now they are all acting from their gut,” political commentator Ben Caspit told Army radio. “They are setting Rome on fire, and Netanyahu is playing the fiddle.”

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