JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon, Israel's hawkish former defense minister, launched a campaign Friday to oust Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1996 elections, declaring his intention to form a broad right-wing coalition and lead "a rescue mission to save the Land of Israel and the Jewish people."
But Sharon's announcement was more a challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the opposition Likud Party, who has been feuding with Sharon.
Netanyahu angrily demanded Sharon's expulsion from the party.
"Arik Sharon is a permanent subversive," he declared. "The time has come for such a man to leave Likud."
Sharon laughed off Netanyahu's demand, replying, "I hope Mr. Netanyahu will at least permit me to stay in the country."
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, defeated by Rabin two years ago, tartly rebuked Sharon, saying he "should find more useful things to do in the national interest than undermine it."
Zeev (Benny) Begin, the son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and a longtime Sharon foe, said that the burly former general is as likely to win the premiership as he is the world tennis championship.
And some members of Rabin's Labor Party, noting the deep divisions in Israel's right wing--Tsomet Party leader Rafael Eitan has also declared his candidacy--wondered aloud whether the prime minister might not benefit by calling early national elections.
An opinion survey last week for the newspaper Yediot Aharonot showed Rabin to be Israelis' preferred leader, winning support from 36% of those questioned. Netanyahu followed with 19%, Sharon with 12% and Eitan with 11%.
Netanyahu has maintained that if the right unites, it could defeat Labor, oust Rabin and return to the Likud's concept of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under Israeli sovereignty.
"Sharon undermined both Begin and Shamir, and now he is undermining me," Netanyahu said. "He spreads the seeds of a split."
Under a change in Israel's political system, the next prime minister will be elected directly by popular vote and must win 50% of the vote, on a second ballot if not the first. In the past, the party that won the most seats in Parliament nominated the prime minister.
Sharon, 66, a retired general, is a fierce opponent of the government's peace talks with the Palestinians and believes that any withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip will endanger Israel's security and even its existence.