TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon survived a major challenge to his leadership in the party he helped found, narrowly claiming victory yesterday in a vote widely seen as a referendum on his rule and the recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
The victory capped a dramatic comeback for Sharon, who has been vilified by Likud Party hard-liners for the Gaza pullout and who had been trailing in recent opinion polls. Sharon’s supporters said the victory meant the prime minister would push forward with his peace efforts.
“The argument over whether or not Sharon’s vision was the Likud’s vision is over with this vote,” Roni Bar-On, a pro-Sharon lawmaker, told Israel Radio.
Yesterday’s vote by the 3,000-member Likud central committee was ostensibly over a procedural issue: whether to hold elections for party leader in April, as scheduled, or move up the primary to November. But Sharon and his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the ballot amounted to a vote of confidence in the prime minister.
Netanyahu, who accused Sharon of abandoning the hawkish Likud Party’s nationalist roots by carrying out the withdrawal, pushed for an early primary to capitalize on anger against the prime minister. Sharon opposed any change.
Likud members voted 1,433 to 1,329 – a margin of just 104 votes – in favor of keeping the schedule intact, according to official results announced just after midnight. Turnout was 91 percent. As the results became apparent, Sharon’s supporters at the site of yesterday’s vote popped open champagne bottles and danced in celebration.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister, conceded defeat yesterday in the 52-48 percent vote, but said he would continue his campaign to oust Sharon. He said the close vote showed that the party remains bitterly divided, with many members opposed to Sharon’s concessions to the Palestinians.
“I expect to see this camp with all its force when it fights for the path of the Likud in the primaries and I have no doubt in the second phase we will win and the Likud will win,” Netanyahu said.
Uzi Landau, another prominent opponent of Sharon, said it was now up to the prime minister to unify the party. “If he wants, it will be unified. If he continues his past practices, it will not.”
Sharon did not immediately react to the vote. As he cast his ballot earlier yesterday, he warned that the early elections proposal would “badly harm the Likud.”
Sharon confidants said that with a defeat, he likely would have quit Likud and competed in general elections as the head of a new centrist party. Such a run by Sharon, who is popular among the Israeli general public, would strengthen the political center, pushed Likud to the political fringe, and likely improve chances of a Mideast peace deal.
Sharon has expressed hope that the Gaza withdrawal could lead to a resumption of peace talks, and he has voiced support for an independent Palestinian state.
The prime minister is still expected to face a tough challenge from Netanyahu in the party primary. And his junior coalition partner, the centrist Labor Party, has hinted at leaving the government and forcing early general elections if peace efforts stall. Elections are currently scheduled in November 2006.
Sharon has brushed off repeated attempts by party hard-liners to defeat him since announcing plans for the Gaza withdrawal nearly two years ago. In a boost for Sharon, one of the Likud “rebels,” Gilad Erdan, said after yesterday’s vote that he would call on the party to line up behind Sharon.
Polls in recent days had shown Netanyahu with as much as a 12-point lead among Likud voters, and a barrage of rockets launched at Israel by Palestinian militants was expected to further bolster Sharon’s opponents. Netanyahu has repeatedly warned the Gaza pullout would encourage Palestinian violence.
Late Sunday, Sharon was thwarted from addressing a party convention when his microphone cut out twice. Likud officials said the sound system was sabotaged. After waiting nearly half an hour, Sharon left without speaking.
In response to the rocket attacks, Israel launched a wide-ranging offensive against militants across Gaza and the West Bank over the weekend. Sharon’s critics and Palestinian militants have suggested the offensive was aimed at bolstering the prime minister ahead of yesterday’s vote.
Today, an Israeli missile blew up a small bridge in Gaza, Palestinian officials said. The army said the missile targeted a road used by militants to reach an area used for staging rocket attacks.
There were no reports of injuries.
Among targets yesterday were suspected weapons factories, an access road leading to a rocket-launching site in northern Gaza, weapons-manufacturing factories and storage facilities belonging to various militant groups, and an empty field militants used to launch rockets at Israel.
Israel pressed ahead with its air campaign despite Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar’s call to end the group’s rocket attacks. Zahar said he wanted to prevent further Israeli attacks.
The Bush administration has backed Sharon’s military offensive, and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that Hamas launched attacks on Israel after the statement was made.
“We understand the situation in which Israel finds itself,” McCormack said. “And we fully understand Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Even if Hamas stops its rocket attacks, it remained unclear whether smaller militant groups would follow suit. Islamic Jihad said it would not observe the truce after an Israeli airstrike Sunday killed one of its top commanders in Gaza.