Sharon returns with leadership under challenge

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flew home on Monday to a battle for his political survival after collecting diplomatic dividends at the United Nations for a pullout from the Gaza Strip.
Sharon faces a showdown with hardline rival Benjamin Netanyahu trying to unseat him as head of their rightist Likud Party, a move that could bring down the government, force early elections and keep peace-making with the Palestinians on hold.

In a show of confidence on the plane back, Sharon told reporters: “I’m not concerned and neither should you be.”

A week before a fateful meeting of Likud’s Central Committee, Sharon, 77, had complained in a speech to US Jewish leaders in New York that he had “lost the majority of my own party” and was in danger of being ousted.

He said “radical extremists” in the Likud opposed to quitting Gaza after 38 years of military occupation were trying to force a parliamentary election although the party did not have to submit to such a test until late 2006.

Rightist critics of the first removal of Jewish settlements from land Palestinians want for a state have called the pullout, completed a week ago, a surrender to Palestinian violence and a betrayal of Jewish biblical claims on occupied territory.

“Ariel Sharon has seven days to save his government,” wrote commentator Nadav Eyal in the Maariv daily.

A political crisis also was brewing for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Parliament was set next Monday to debate a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Cabinet, Abbas appointees, by lawmakers who hold them responsible for chaos in Gaza following the Israeli pullout.

For Sharon, the fight that looms at home stands in contrast to the warm embrace he received from leaders at the UN World Summit where he won accolades for a Gaza withdrawal seen as a possible catalyst for renewed peace moves.

Likud powerbrokers

The 3,000-member Central Committee is due to decide on Sept. 26 whether to bring forward to November the date to choose a party leader, as favoured by Netanyahu, or back Sharon’s bid to keep the Likud primary as scheduled around April 2006.

Israel’s Maariv newspaper, polling the party’s powerbrokers, found 43 per cent wanted Netanyahu to head the Likud and 39 per cent favoured Sharon, while a survey in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily showed Sharon with 43 per cent to his rival’s 40 per cent.

Both polls showed gains by Sharon from findings in late August, when he appeared in deep trouble, but all signs pointed to a close vote on when to hold the leadership vote.

Sharon’s woes have raised speculation that he would opt to bolt the Likud to form a centrist party that would tap into what polls found was strong backing by a majority of Israelis for the exit of settlers and soldiers from Gaza.

Returning on Monday, Sharon was expected to begin scrambling for support. If Netanyahu, Sharon’s former finance minister, wins the central committee vote and claims the Likud leadership, a general election could be held as early as February.

Sharon wants to buy time, hoping memories of the trauma of uprooted settlers will fade within the traditionally pro-settler Likud he co-founded three decades ago, and that he can convince party members he is the best bet for keeping them in power.

Sharon’s address to UN general assembly, long regarded by Israel as hostile, sought to bolster public support at home.

Speaking in Hebrew, Sharon used more conciliatory language than in the past towards the Palestinians, saying they were entitled to a state. But he re-affirmed a demand they disarm factions before there could be any progress towards statehood.

Signalling a possible thaw in Israel’s relations with the Muslim world, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, whose Muslim country has no ties with Israel, shook hands with Sharon.

Palestinians were less impressed, calling on Israel to leave the occupied West Bank, where Sharon has pledged to expand major settlement blocs he says will remain in Israeli hands forever.

With Gaza seen as a proving ground for statehood, Abbas faces the threat of further political instability when lawmakers meet next week to decide whether to hold a no-confidence vote.

Abbas’ own position is safe because he was elected by popular ballot, but a government shakeup could create problems for his ruling Fateh movement in the run-up to long-delayed parliamentary elections scheduled for January.

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