Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday that he would try to unseat Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as leader of the conservative Likud Party, a move that could split Israel’s dominant political faction.
Netanyahu’s challenge was widely expected, coming three weeks after he resigned as finance minister to protest Sharon’s decision to pull Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and four small sites in the northern West Bank.
The struggle over who will head the Likud will mean several months of political turmoil that could end with Israel’s leading party cutting short its hold on power in a spasm of internal strife. Netanyahu and his allies in the Likud are expected to seek a primary in November, meaning national elections could come as soon as February.
Elections are formally scheduled for November 2006, although an early vote has seemed likely for months.
Netanyahu, 55, took aim at the Gaza pullout, which he said left Israel more vulnerable to armed attack by Palestinian fighters without bringing benefits in return. Sharon’s government completed the pullout of Gaza settlers last week, and plans in the coming weeks to withdraw the Israeli military from the territory.
In an appeal to the Likud’s right wing, Netanyahu said that Sharon, a hawkish former general who for decades was the chief sponsor of Israel’s settlement-building effort, was following a leftist path. Netanyahu said there would be no unilateral withdrawals under his leadership.
“The man who received our votes to lead the movement in the Likud’s spirit turned his back on us,” Netanyahu said during a nationally broadcast news conference in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu’s challenge places Sharon, 77, in a difficult spot. The prime minister faces widespread anger within the Likud over his decision to proceed with the Gaza pullout despite losing a party referendum on the issue in May 2004.
Polls have shown Sharon losing to Netanyahu by more than 15 percentage points. Uzi Landau, a member of parliament who vigorously opposed the withdrawal, also plans to run for Likud leader.
Sharon’s soft support leaves him to weigh whether to bolt from the Likud, perhaps taking a splinter faction with him into general elections.
Despite opposition within the Likud, Sharon remains the favored candidate among the general public, and the relative smoothness with which the Gaza withdrawal took place appears to have added to that support.
Polls show Sharon winning a national race over possible rivals from the Likud and the left-leaning Labor Party, and winning more parliament seats as head of a Likud ticket than Netanyahu would.
The Likud is the biggest parliamentary faction, with 40 seats in the 120-member body.
Some analysts have talked of a “big bang” -- a possible realignment of Israeli politics in which Sharon would head a new centrist party, with a fragment of the Likud merging with Labor and the secular Shinui Party.
Political commentator Hanan Kristal told Israel Radio that a split in the Likud was almost inevitable.
Already, some leading party members are trying to prevent such a rift. A decisive moment will come Sept. 26, when the Likud’s 3,000-member central committee is scheduled to set a date for primary elections.
Netanyahu’s camp, seeking to capitalize on right-wing discontent, is expected to push for the earliest possible primary. Sharon probably will hold out for a later date, perhaps early next year, to gain time to win back disenchanted former supporters. He might appeal a decision to hold an earlier primary, run despite the timing or break off before the party vote.
In a television interview Monday, Sharon said he intended to lead the Likud in seeking reelection as prime minister.
“I am a man of the Likud. I was elected by the Likud and I will run for the Likud,” he told Israel’s Channel 10 television.
The contest between Sharon and Netanyahu has gotten off to a bitter start. During the television interview, Sharon criticized Netanyahu, who was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, saying he tended to panic under duress and lacked the fortitude to lead.
“To run this country, to deal with the most complex and difficult problems, you need judgment and nerves of steel,” Sharon said. “He has neither.”
Sharon said Netanyahu shirked his responsibilities when he quit a week before the withdrawal was to begin. Netanyahu grudgingly voted in favor of the pullout several times before he announced he was resigning Aug. 7.
Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a Likud member and close Sharon ally, on Tuesday said Netanyahu was “not a worthy man, either morally or when it comes to his capacity to withstand the personality tests required from a prime minister.”
For his part, Netanyahu, a former military commando who is known by his nickname “Bibi,” accused Sharon of providing a “tailwind for terrorism.”
Israeli pundits predicted more of the same animosity.
“This will be one of the fiercest and dirtiest battles the country has ever known,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote Tuesday in the daily Maariv newspaper. “The current hatred between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, the unrestrained emotions, the bad blood boiling between them, dwarf everything we knew before.”
Labor also will set a date for its party primaries soon, but it may choose to wait until it is clear what happens within the Likud. Labor joined Sharon’s coalition last December to keep the government afloat long enough to carry out the withdrawal, which the party supported.