ISRAEL Netanyahu eyes role as leader of Likud party

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has angered the party with the withdrawal of settlements.
JERUSALEM -- Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Israeli prime minister who quit the Cabinet earlier this month to protest Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, announced his candidacy for the Likud Party leadership Tuesday in a direct and highly personal challenge to sitting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"I intend to lead the party to victory in the coming elections and form the next government," Netanyahu said during an afternoon news conference that included a harsh critique of the current Likud leader, Sharon.
"He abandoned the principles of the Likud," said Netanyahu, 55, who was prime minister from 1996 until 1999 when he was badly beaten by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak.
"He chose a different path, the path of the left. We have to restore to the Likud and to the state the principles that Sharon trampled on."
Resigned from Cabinet
The announcement has been expected since Netanyahu resigned Aug. 7 as finance minister to register his opposition to Israel's withdrawal from 25 settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank, a plan he voted for several times in the Cabinet while supporting an unprecedented public referendum on the issue to block it.
Israel's elections must be held before November 2006, but many political analysts here believe voting will be held next spring given the tumultuous state of the dominant conservative party.
Netanyahu's first comments as a candidate gave a flavor of the bitter struggle ahead between two men who deeply dislike each other. A day earlier, Sharon told Israel's Channel 10 that "Netanyahu is a man who gets stressed."
The Likud showdown is the next step in a realignment that is taking place along generational lines within Israel's highly factional political system, precipitated by the Gaza withdrawal.
Once a standard-bearer of the Israeli right as a staunch supporter of settlements and a skeptic of the Palestinian peace process, Sharon has alienated many of his former followers by pulling out of Gaza.
In the months before disengagement, Sharon, 77, turned to his old friend and political rival Shimon Peres, head of the more dovish Labor Party, to shore up his government.

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