Former Israeli PM intends to replace Sharon

Former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday that he would challenge Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for leadership of the ruling Likud Party and replace him as premier, setting off a bitter fight that could shake up Israeli politics and paralyze Mideast peacemaking.

Netanyahu lashed out at Sharon for his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip — accusing him of creating a de facto Palestinian state — and said he would take a far tougher stance.

"Sharon gave and gave and gave, the Palestinians got and got and got, and my question is, what did we get? Nothing and nothing and nothing," Netanyahu said.

The announcement by Netanyahu, a former prime minister who is leading Sharon in party polls, had been expected since he resigned as finance minister three weeks ago to protest the Gaza withdrawal.

The political turmoil sparked by the leadership battle will likely delay efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace moves following the pullout, which is to be completed in weeks.

A fight inside Likud could rip the party apart and lead to a major political realignment ahead of national elections that are scheduled for November 2006 but could come earlier if Sharon's coalition collapses.

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