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Sharon Crushes Netanyahu

Israeli prime minister retains leadership of the Likud Party with about 60% of the vote. The celebrations are muted amid terrorist attacks.

November 29, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon crushed rival Benjamin Netanyahu in a contest Thursday for the leadership of their rightist Likud Party, setting the Israeli leader on the path to probable victory in January's general elections.

The lopsided primary vote -- with about 60% backing for Sharon -- came on a day shadowed by terror attacks against Israelis at home and overseas, including a shooting at a Likud polling place in the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean that left six Israelis dead and dozens wounded. The two Palestinian gunmen were also killed.

"What happened today ... was part of an effort by terrorists to affect the democratic system in Israel," a weary-looking, hoarse Sharon told supporters at a muted victory celebration at party headquarters in Tel Aviv early today. "We won't surrender to terror, and we will win."

Against a backdrop of relentless violence that has dragged on for 26 months, Likud voters appeared to embrace the prime minister's brand of tough on-the-ground military measures against the Palestinians, tempered by a stated openness toward a negotiated solution that could lead to Palestinian statehood.

During the brief primary campaign, Netanyahu tried to outflank Sharon on the right, advocating measures such as the expulsion of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and repeatedly declaring his opposition to Palestinian statehood.

But by a 3-2 ratio, the voters backed the more moderate policy crafted by Sharon during his 21 months in office. About 305,000 registered Likud members were eligible to cast ballots.

In recent months, the prime minister has bowed, for the most part, to the wish of the Bush administration to avoid any major escalation in the conflict with the Palestinians during the run-up to potential war in Iraq.

Heading into the Jan. 28 general elections, Likud holds a commanding lead in the polls over the left-leaning Labor Party, led since last week by Amram Mitzna, the dovish mayor of Haifa.

Mitzna, like so many Israeli politicians a former army general, has said he would restart peace talks with the Palestinians without preconditions and move to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip.

For Sharon, the overwhelming endorsement by his own party -- and the likelihood of victory in January -- caps what has been a remarkable political rehabilitation. Once considered the hardest of hard-line hawks, he spent years on the margins of government after being indirectly blamed, during his tenure as defense minister in the 1980s, for the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by Christian militiamen.

However, since his election in February 2001, the 74-year-old Sharon has successfully cultivated a statesmanlike, grandfatherly image, repairing tattered relations with leading figures on Israel's political left. He has said he hopes to once again build a "national unity" government encompassing those who were once his bitterest political foes.

Paradoxically, analysts say, Sharon has managed to gain the confidence of voters as the man who may be able to lead the country out of grinding warfare with the Palestinians -- even as the two sides endure the region's worst violence in a generation. Israel has been hit by an unprecedented wave of Palestinian suicide attacks, and Palestinians suffer daily privations and frequent civilian casualties amid an Israeli military clampdown in many towns and cities of the West Bank.

"In the broadest sense, it's all about security," said political analyst Mark Heller. "I think the impulse by Israeli voters is to seek a steady hand at the helm, a wish to avoid adventurism, and a knowledge that there's no silver bullet."

Netanyahu, who has served as Sharon's foreign minister for the past 3 1/2 weeks, conceded the race without waiting for official results, soon after exit polls showed him losing by a decisive margin. Faced with projected results of 61% of the vote going to Sharon and 37% to him, Netanyahu called Sharon to congratulate him.

"Now we must work for a united Likud," he told supporters at a Tel Aviv hotel.

The 53-year-old former prime minister's reputation for political agility -- derided by many as slickness -- did not hold up well during this campaign outing. Netanyahu stumbled from the outset, his policy criticisms of Sharon going largely unanswered by the prime minister, except in the form of deft, indirect rebukes.

Even in a political culture in which heavy-handedness is not perceived as a liability, Netanyahu offended many Israelis with an ad campaign touting the fact that there were only four suicide bombings during his 1996-99 term as prime minister -- well before the current outbreak of violence began. With Israeli nerves rubbed raw by constant attacks, the intended jab at Sharon was widely viewed as disrespectful toward the victims.

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