A split in Israel's ruling party loomed as a result of its pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, with Benjamin Netanyahu, a contentious ex-premier, challenging Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his job and putting Mideast peace efforts on indefinite hold.
Netanyahu made it official on Tuesday -- he will run against Sharon in Likud Party primaries, hoping to cash in on stiff opposition among registered Likud voters to the pullout. Polls show Netanyahu far ahead of Sharon among those voters, the ones who choose the party leader.
The Sharon-Netanyahu split, already punctuated by bitter personal invective on both sides, plunges Israel into an extended election process. General elections are set for November next year but could be brought forward as the political pot reaches its boiling point.
Since Palestinians are also facing parliamentary elections in January, resumption of Mideast peace talks appears unlikely before the voters have their say.
Appealing to his hawkish supporters, Netanyahu lashed out at Sharon for his unilateral pullout from Gaza, accusing him of creating a de facto Palestinian state -- and said he would take a far tougher stance toward the Palestinians.
"Sharon gave and gave and gave, the Palestinians got and got and got, and my question is what did we get? Nothing, and nothing and nothing," Netanyahu said.
The Sharon-Netanyahu battle burst into the open after a party tribunal ruled Monday that the 3,000-member Likud Central Committee, stacked with Netanyahu supporters, could set a primary date in a Sept. 25 vote.
Netanyahu would benefit from a quick leadership contest. Sharon, whose standing in the hardline party plunged because of his Gaza pullout, needs more time to reposition himself and stage a comeback.
Some Sharon confidantes have advised the prime minister to leave the party he helped found three decades ago and create a new centrist party with Likud moderates, capitalizing on the broad popularity Sharon enjoys among the general public.
A Netanyahu-led Likud is expected to win far fewer than the 40 seats that Likud, the largest party, currently holds in the 120-member parliament.
Senior Likud officials warned that party infighting could leave it badly weakened and out of power.
"It's certainly true that when the Labor Party does its election campaign spots, it won't have much work to do," Gideon Saar, Likud's parliamentary chief, told Israel's Channel 2 TV.
Former premier Ehud Barak of Labor responded to the Likud turmoil by calling on all candidates for Labor leader to unite behind elder statesman Shimon Peres, currently the vice premier.
"Shimon Peres is far preferable to Sharon and Netanyahu," he told Channel 10 TV.
Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a strong Sharon ally, said Netanyahu planned to steer Likud, and the country, into the hands of the hardline extremists.
"What he wants to do is take the state of Israel back into diplomatic isolation, economic boycott, internal disputes, into disagreement with the United States -- our greatest friend -- Europe and the rest of the world," he told Israel TV.
The broadsides began even before Netanyahu's announcement.
On Monday, Sharon attacked his rival, who earned a reputation for political recklessness as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, as prone to panic and unfit to lead.
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