Sharon won't quit Likud party anyway

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Tuesday he would fight to retain the leadership of his right-wing Likud party despite tensions about the withdrawal from Gaza.

The Israeli leader, who recently returned from a trip to the United Nations where he was praised for the pullout, did not say whether he would quit the party if he loses and lead a new faction to run in a national ballot next year.

"I plan to ... run (in a vote to head) the Likud, win and lead the Likud in elections, which will be held on schedule, in order to keep the Likud in power," Israeli media quoted Sharon as telling members of his party at his office in Jerusalem.

Sharon, who is serving his second term, faces dissent in the party, with Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, gaining support among opponents of the Gaza pullout which was completed on Sept. 12.

The Likud Central Committee will vote on Sept. 26 on whether to hold early elections for the party's leadership as requested by Netanyahu, who quit Sharon's cabinet before the start of the Gaza pullout in August and later said he would challenge Sharon.

In the meantime opponents of the pullout within Likud accuse Sharon, once a champion of settlements, of betraying them to win political favour internationally. Media polls have shown that support for Sharon among Likud members has waned in recent weeks.

Some political analysts say this could lead Sharon to quit the party and form a new faction.

Many Israeli rightists condemn the withdrawal, claiming the territories as their biblical birthright and saying giving them to the Palestinians, who want them as part of a future state, would reward militants.

The Palestinians welcomed the pullout but fear Sharon will use it to justify retaining major West Bank settlement blocs, Reuters reports.

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