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Netanyahu wins Israel's Likud leadership
21 December 2005
TEL AVIV: Benjamin Netanyahu swept to victory to lead Israel's Likud party after the rightist faction was shattered last month by the defection of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister who opposed Sharon's Gaza pullout and vows to fight further withdrawals from land Palestinians want for a state, won 47 per cent of the vote to 32 per cent for Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, an exit poll showed.
Likud has led Israel for all but 10 years since it first took power in 1977, but is now battling for third place in opinion polls behind Sharon's new centrist Kadima party and leftist Labour. National elections are set for March 28.
The Likud primary was overshadowed by Sharon's admission to a Jerusalem hospital on Sunday suffering from a mild stroke. Political analysts said worries over the 77-year-old former general's staying power could help Likud's fortunes.
Mindful of the election campaign ahead and of the need to keep the spotlight on Sharon's medical concerns, Netanyahu made a point in his victory speech of wishing him "good health".
Sharon's aides have rushed to reassure the public he was in no danger. He was due to be discharged from hospital.
"Netanyahu has been restored to his natural place at the helm of Likud and with God's help he will also become prime minister," Likud parliamentarian Yuval Steinitz said.
With 10 per cent of votes counted and the tally in line with the exit poll's findings, Shalom conceded defeat and offered Netanyahu his support. Final results were not due until Tuesday.
Sharon quit Likud in November because of a rebellion by party ultra-nationalists trying to topple him for abandoning the Gaza Strip in September after 38 years of occupation.
A Netanyahu win anoints him as the party's candidate to run against Sharon, who has dominated the political scene for years and enjoys high approval ratings.
It also confirms a return to Likud's rightist roots. The party had long opposed giving up Jewish settlements on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Netanyahu, 56, who as Sharon's finance minister won market praise for deep spending cuts and free-market reforms that helped lift Israel out of recession, quit Sharon's cabinet in protest against the Gaza pullout.
He ran for the Likud leadership on a platform of refusing further territorial withdrawals and promising expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank in defiance of a US-sponsored "road map" to peace with the Palestinians.
Shalom, a relative moderate, had been seen as more flexible on possible peacemaking.
As prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu condemned interim land-for-peace deals but then agreed, under US pressure, to hand over part of the West Bank city of Hebron.
He lost to then Labour leader Ehud Barak in 1999 and failed in a Likud leadership challenge to Sharon for 2003 elections.
Voter turnout on Monday was only 46 per cent of Likud's 128,000 members, reflecting disappointment over Sharon's departure and apathy over the candidates running to succeed him.
Netanyahu is widely known by his nickname "Bibi" but also as "Mr Soundbite" for his polished made-for-TV oratory.
Many Israelis dislike his style and distrust him as a political opportunist.
There is also resentment over the hardships his economic policies caused Israel's poor. When Netanyahu visited Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's holiest place of prayer, on Monday, some onlookers shouted "You ruined our lives".
Surveys have predicted a major loss for Likud in the March elections, with Sharon's Kadima luring away many of its supporters. Likud, which currently has 40 seats in the 120-member parliament, is expected to keep only about 12.
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