DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
And now a story about politics overseas. This weekend saw an outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. It was the first significant violence since Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza earlier this month. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon staked his political career on that withdrawal, and today he took a lot of heat for it from his colleagues at a conference of his ruling Likud Party. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.
(Soundbite of cheering)
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
The atmosphere of the Likud Central Committee was more like a soccer game than a political meeting that could determine the future of Israeli politics. Sharon's chief rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was cheered and booed as he ascended the podium. Netanyahu resigned from the government to protest Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. In his speech, Netanyahu accused Sharon of taking the Likud too far to the left.
Former Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): (Foreign language spoken)
GRADSTEIN: Netanyahu asked, `What has become of the Likud Party now?' He suggested it had gone to the left of Meretz, one of the most dovish parties in Israel.
Tomorrow is when the Likud's 3,000-member Central Committee votes on whether to advance primaries for the party leadership, as Netanyahu wants, or to hold them as scheduled, as Sharon wants. The procedural issue has turned into a struggle for power between Sharon and Netanyahu. In his speech, Sharon was expected to warn the members of the Central Committee that if he loses tomorrow's vote, he's likely to leave the Likud and start a new centrist party that will pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians. But Sharon never got beyond the first few words of his speech.
Prime Minister ARIEL SHARON (Israel): (Foreign language spoken)
GRADSTEIN: Sharon's microphone suddenly stopped working. The prime minister sat back down in his place as technicians fumbled with the system. Sharon got up and tried again to speak, but there was no sound. After about 10 minutes, the prime minister waved at his supporters and left the hall without giving his speech. Each side blamed the other for the technical failure. The director general of the Likud said opponents may have poured a bucket of water on the electrical system hooked up to the microphone. Netanyahu supporters accuse Sharon of trying to create a provocation. Police said they had not found any evidence of sabotage but will open an official investigation.
Hirsh Goodman of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies says Israel's ruling party now looks ridiculous.
Mr. HIRSH GOODMAN (Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies): I think the Likud as it stands right now, with a bunch of screaming apes and people who pull out microphones and behave in totally unacceptable--within any parameters of acceptable behavior, have become irrelevant.
GRADSTEIN: Goodman says he believes the incident will only strengthen Sharon. Until now, polls had predicted that Netanyahu would win tomorrow's procedural vote and Sharon would lead the Likud. Now many analysts say it's too close to
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