RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced today that he is challenging current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for leadership of the ruling Likud Party. The announcement comes on the heels of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a move that many in the Likud opposed. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
The Israeli newspaper Maariv's banner headline today reads: Sharon's Ouster Begins. Primaries in the Likud are expected to be held in November, and with today's announcement the race for the leadership of the party has begun. Last night on Israel television, Sharon sharply attacked Netanyahu, saying he is unfit to lead Israel.
(Soundbite of television program)
Prime Minister ARIEL SHARON (Israel): (Foreign language spoken)
GRADSTEIN: `Netanyahu is an uptight individual who panics and loses his wits,' Sharon said. `To lead Israel, one needs a level head and nerves of steel, and Netanyahu has neither.'
Polls show Netanyahu well ahead of Sharon among members of the Likud Central Committee, which chooses the party's candidates. Many of these Likud Party officials are furious that Sharon pushed the Gaza withdrawal through the Israeli Parliament despite their opposition. David Horovitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Post newspaper, says many in the Likud want Sharon out and Netanyahu in.
Mr. DAVID HOROVITZ (Editor, Jerusalem Post): Therefore, Netanyahu argues with a great deal of credibility that Sharon has really pulled the Likud to the political left, away from its traditional positions, and according to surveys appears to have very serious backing within the Likud for a return to what many people in the party see as its traditional positions.
GRADSTEIN: Netanyahu's challenge coincides with the indictment of Sharon's son in connection with one of his father's election campaigns. But Israeli analysts say several of Sharon's predecessors faced similar charges, and the Israeli public does not seem to be swayed by corruption charges.
The question is what happens if, as expected, Netanyahu beats Sharon for leadership of the Likud later this year. David Horovitz says Sharon may decide to end his political career with the successful Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Mr. HOROVITZ: He's not a young man. He's, you know--he's in his late 70s. This was a major and traumatic event. I don't think he thinks that peace is around the corner, and therefore I wonder if he does have the desire to plow on when a permanent accord does not seem to be near at hand.
GRADSTEIN: But other Israeli analysts, like Hirsh Goodman of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, say Sharon has no intention of retiring to his farm in southern Israel.
Mr. HIRSH GOODMAN (Analyst, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies): I personally feel that Sharon is not going to give up power. He needs to be in for another four years. He has a plan, I believe, and if necessary he'll split the Likud. And it'll be politically very wise for him to do so.
GRADSTEIN: Goodman says Sharon is likely to form a centrist party that would include his supporters from the Likud, much of the center-left Labor Party and the centrist Shinui Party, which controls 14 seats in the Israeli Parliament, over 10 percent of the house. He says such a centrist party could win big in the next Israeli elections, which are scheduled for over a year from now, but likely to be held sometime next spring.
Mr. GOODMAN: Yeah, I think pretty much there's a new political divide in the country. It's not `Can we make peace?,' `Can't we make peace?' `Is there a partner?,' `Isn't there a partner?,' `Should we be socialist?,' `Should we be capitalist?' That's not the political debate anymore. The political debate in Israel is very clear-cut. It's between the consolidationists, who say, `Let's retract, let's bring in our forces, let's bring--let's consolidate,' and between the expansionists, who want to keep it all.
GRADSTEIN: Polls show the majority of the public believes the Gaza withdrawal was a good idea, and many Israelis see Sharon as a strong, successful leader. Analysts say that in an election contest between Netanyahu as the head of Likud and Sharon as the head of a centrist party, Sharon would win.
However, the polls show all of this is predicated on the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. If suicide bombings, such as Sunday's in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba that seriously wounded two Israeli security guards, resume, support for Netanyahu could quickly rise. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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