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Sharon Leads Netanyahu in Race for Likud Party Leadership

In a poll published Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a commanding lead over his new foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the race for the leadership of the right-wing Likud Party. Whoever emerges the winner has a good chance of being the next prime minister of Israel.

The survey, in the mass circulation Hebrew daily newspaper Ma'ariv, says 48 percent of Likud voters would cast their ballots for Mr. Sharon in primary elections. Mr. Netanyahu, by comparison, would receive 38 percent.

The findings are the first major poll published since Mr. Sharon announced early elections on Tuesday.

The prime minister made the announcement after failing to persuade new parties to join his coalition in place of the Labor Party, which left the government last week.

On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu agreed to serve as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has also signaled his intention to campaign against Mr. Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party.

More than party leadership is at stake in the race between the two men. Whoever becomes leader will most likely be Israel's next prime minister, as Likud is heavily favored to win national elections scheduled for January.

The national ballot is expected to delay efforts to revive the Middle East peace process and deepen regional uncertainty ahead of a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq.

Meanwhile, another prominent member of the Likud, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, says that he intends to become a member of the next parliament.

He will leave Jerusalem City Hall after two terms of office. The post has made him an internationally recognized figure because of the world focus on Jerusalem, which is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Likud officials acknowledge that Mr. Olmert is being courted by the prime minister, and could be given a prominent position in the next government, should Mr. Sharon be re-elected.