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Netanyahu Announces Bid to Run Against Sharon for Likud Leadership

Former Israeli finance minister and prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday that he is a candidate for chairman of the Likud Party. The move challenging Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the first time any party in Israel has tried to oust a serving prime minister from its own party.

Benjamin Netanyahu announced his candidacy at a tumultuous news conference in Tel Aviv.

"I intend to lead the party to victory in the coming elections and form the next government," Mr. Netanyahu said. He said Likud needs new leadership to repair the damage it had suffered under Ariel Sharon.

The announcement was warmly received by a group of supporters, but there were opponents present as well.

Scuffles broke out in the back of the hall when Sharon supporters objected to the Netanyahu statement that the prime minister had abandoned the principles of Likud.

The Netanyahu bid for prime minister reflects the deep divisions that have opened within the Likud Party over the controversial plan to withdraw all Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza and to dismantle four small settlements in the northern West Bank.

The party's central committee is to vote on September 26 on a proposal to hold early primaries, a vote that would essentially oust Mr. Sharon as party leader and trigger early elections well before the scheduled vote due in November of 2006.

The latest opinion polls show Mr. Netanyahu would easily defeat Mr. Sharon if a vote within Likud were held today. Mr. Netanyahu won substantial support for his opposition to the Gaza disengagement and Ariel Sharon lost backing. If unrest or violence were to escalate in Gaza in the wake of the evacuation, as Sharon opponents predict, the prime minister could lose even more support.

But, Mr. Sharon remains defiant. In a television interview late Monday, he dismissed Mr. Netanyahu as an opponent.

The prime minister described his rival as an individual who does not deal with pressure, a man who panics and loses his composure. "He cannot lead a country," Mr. Sharon said, "especially a country like Israel that faces difficult and complicated problems every day."

Mr. Sharon has said he will not quit the Likud, a party he co-founded, to form a new one as some have suggested. He has widespread support all across the Israeli political spectrum, but unless he can withstand the pressure from within his own party he will not get the chance to demonstrate his political strength in a general election.