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Sharon rebounds with narrow victory

Israeli premier survives challenge in key Likud vote

TEL AVIV, Israel — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon survived a major challenge to his leadership in the party he helped found, narrowly claiming victory Monday in a vote widely seen as a referendum on his rule and the recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The victory capped a dramatic comeback for Sharon, who has been vilified by Likud Party hard-liners for the Gaza pullout and who had been trailing in recent opinion polls. Sharon's supporters said the victory meant the prime minister would push forward with his peace efforts.

"The argument over whether or not Sharon's vision was the Likud's vision is over with this vote," Roni Bar-On, a pro-Sharon lawmaker, told Israel Radio.

Monday's vote by the 3,000-member Likud central committee was ostensibly over a procedural issue: whether to hold elections for party leader in April, as scheduled, or move up the primary to November. But Sharon and his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the ballot amounted to a vote of confidence in the prime minister.

Netanyahu, who accused Sharon of abandoning the hawkish Likud Party's nationalist roots by carrying out the withdrawal, pushed for an early primary to capitalize on anger against the prime minister. Sharon opposed any change.

Likud members voted 1,433 to 1,329 — a margin of just 104 votes — in favor of keeping the schedule intact, according to official results announced just after midnight. Turnout was 91 percent. As the results became apparent, Sharon's supporters at the site of Monday's vote popped open champagne bottles and danced in celebration.

Netanyahu, a former prime minister, conceded defeat Monday in the 52-48 percent vote but said he would continue his campaign to oust Sharon. He said the close vote showed that the party remains bitterly divided, with many members opposed to Sharon's concessions to the Palestinians.

"I expect to see this camp with all its force when it fights for the path of the Likud in the primaries and I have no doubt in the second phase we will win and the Likud will win," Netanyahu said.

Uzi Landau, another prominent opponent of Sharon, said it was now up to the prime minister to unify the party. "If he wants, it will be unified. If he continues his past practices, it will not."

Sharon did not immediately react to the vote. As he cast his ballot earlier Monday, he warned that the early elections proposal would "badly harm the Likud."

Sharon confidants said that with a defeat, he likely would have quit Likud and competed in general elections as the head of a new centrist party. Such a run by Sharon, who is popular among the Israeli general public, would strengthen the political center, pushed Likud to the political fringe, and likely improve chances of a Mideast peace deal.

Sharon has expressed hope that the Gaza withdrawal could lead to a resumption of peace talks, and he has voiced support for an independent Palestinian state.

The prime minister is still expected to face a tough challenge from Netanyahu in the party primary. And his junior coalition partner, the centrist Labor Party, has hinted at leaving the government and forcing early general elections if peace efforts stall. Elections are currently scheduled in November 2006.