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Israel's Likud Party Holds Internal Ballot - 2002-11-28

Israel's ruling Likud faction holds an internal ballot Thursday for the leadership of the party. Likud members are being asked to choose between the prime minister, Ariel Sharon and foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The winner will run for prime minister in national elections in January.

After more than three years in the political wilderness, the former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hopes to complete a remarkable comeback Thursday when he challenges Ariel Sharon for the leadership of the Likud Party.

But with current opinion polls showing Mr. Sharon 20 percentage points ahead within the Likud membership, a win to Mr. Netanyahu would be a stunning upset.

His reappearance, following a humiliating national election defeat in 1999, shows a dogged determination to climb back to the top. When he left office three years ago, after a stormy period marked by scandal and allegations of political bungling, many thought his career was over.

Mr. Netanyahu has attempted to make security the chief issue. And he has already taken the fight to the international community.

He gave this response to ambassadors in Israel, following last week's suicide bus bombing in Israel that killed at least 11 people. "The only way to defeat savagery, the only way to defeat terrorism is to defeat it," he said. "If we do not defeat it, it will spread, it will spread to every part of the world, to every one of your societies, to every one of your cities."

While criticizing world leaders for not backing Israel's campaign against terrorism, Mr. Netanyahu has also taken aim at Mr. Sharon.

He argues that Mr. Sharon has failed to improve security since winning office last year. Mr. Netanyahu says Israelis are afraid to take public transport, and terrified of sitting in cafes and restaurants, which have become the targets of suicide bombers.

Mr. Sharon takes a different tack. He told the Foreign Press Association in Israel earlier this year, that both peace with the Palestinians and security for his own people are part of his central strategy. "This government is ready to make painful compromises for genuine, durable, true, peace," said Ariel Sharon. "But this government will not make any compromise whatsoever, not now, and not in the future, when it comes to the security of the Israeli citizens and the very existence of the state of Israel."

Mr. Netanyahu is also against the establishment of a Palestinian state. He prefers limited Palestinian self-rule and wants the current Palestinian Authority, including Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, removed from power.

Mr. Netanyahu's message appears to be somewhat to the right of most Israelis, and even most members of his own party. A poll published in the Hebrew daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, last week indicated that half of the registered Likud members are willing to accept a Palestinian State.

Most Israelis want a negotiated solution, whether they are members of Likud or the other main party, Labor.

The results of the Likud party primary are expected to known shortly before midnight Thursday and the winner of the Likud contest, judging by the current polls, is almost certain to become Prime Minister in national parliamentary elections scheduled for January 28.

The Likud has a seemingly unassailable lead over the Labor Party, led by newcomer, Amram Mitzna.

Most are predicting Mr. Mitzna will be facing Mr. Sharon, who first stamped his name on the Israeli consciousness as one of the country's greatest generals during a long military career.

Israeli pollster, Hannoch Smith, says Israelis see Mr. Sharon as a more trustworthy figure, which could be a key factor in Thursday's primary. "Sharon, in terms of the general population, seems to be the more popular candidate, between the two. Netanyahu left [politics in 1999] not in very good shape," he said. "He was kind of driven out and he wasn't popular at the time. So Sharon still has the advantage. He is still a very popular prime minister."

Although Mr. Sharon deeply distrusts the Palestinian leadership and has taken a tough stand in negotiations and in fighting the new Intifada, he has taken a more pragmatic approach than Mr. Netanyahu advocates.

In recent weeks, Mr. Netanyahu has promised to send Mr. Arafat into exile. Mr. Sharon acknowledges that Israel is not free to do with Mr. Arafat as it chooses, because expulsion would place severe strains on the country's relationship with the west.

Still, Mr. Sharon has stood by his pledge not to shake Mr. Arafat's hand, a move that seems to have impressed many Israelis.

If Mr. Netanyahu proves to have the most supporters, he will make Israeli political history. To date, no sitting prime minister in the Jewish State has ever been dumped as leader by his faction.