Sharon wins narrow victory in key Likud vote¤

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hardly overcome a challenge to his leadership of the governing Likud Party, but his troubles weren't over on Tuesday as opponents of his Gaza Strip pullout promised to continue their campaign to oust him.

A vote Monday 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. With a margin of just over 100 votes, Sharon, who had trailed in opinion polls as recently as Sunday, scored a dramatic victory over Likud hard-liners who opposed the withdrawal.

Both Sharon and his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the ballot amounted to a vote of confidence in the prime minister, who has expressed hope the pullout would jumpstart long-stalled peace talks ultimately leading to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Sharon did not immediately react to the vote. But Likud lawmaker Roni Bar-On told Israel Radio that "the argument over whether or not Sharon's vision was the Likud's vision is over with this vote."

Netanyahu, a former prime minister, disagreed.

In a statement conceding defeat, he predicted he would prevail in the primaries by tapping the dissatisfaction of Likud members who think Sharon has betrayed the party's nationalist roots. The close vote Monday demonstrated how bitterly divided the party remains, with many members opposed to Sharon's concessions to the Palestinians, he said.

"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.

Netanyahu isn't Sharon's only political worry. Members of his junior coalition partner, the centrist Labor Party, have said they may pull out of the government and force elections before the scheduled November 2006 timetable if peace efforts stall.

Renewed fighting with the Palestinians, just two weeks after Israel ended its 38-year occupation of Gaza, has compounded Sharon's political problems. Hamas militants sent dozens of rockets raining down on southern Israel over the weekend, provoking a series of Israeli air strikes that have killed four militants and destroyed suspected weapons facilities throughout Gaza.

Early Tuesday, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at three access roads in northern Gaza leading to staging areas for rocket attacks. Palestinian officials said one missile destroyed a bridge near the town of Beit Hanoun.

Israeli helicopters also fired two missiles in the town of Khan Younis. Palestinian security officials said an office belonging to the ruling Fatah movement and a money-changing store were hit. Israel said the money changer was a Hamas front.

Israel pressed ahead with its air campaign Tuesday despite Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar's call to end the group's rocket attacks.

Apparently skeptical of the promise, U.S. officials said Monday they supported the Israeli offensive.

Israel has arrested hundreds of Palestinian militants in the West Bank in tandem with the military offensive. Eighty-two Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists were arrested overnight, the military said Tuesday, in addition to the 207 militants taken into custody in a sweep that ended Sunday.

Netanyahu has repeatedly cautioned that the Gaza withdrawal would encourage Palestinian violence. The weekend rocket barrage had been expected to bolster Sharon's opponents in the Likud central committee, though Israeli critics and Palestinian militants said the ensuing military offensive was meant to strengthen the prime minister ahead of Monday's vote.

In the runup to the ballot, Sharon aides had said a defeat likely would have pushed him to quit Likud and form a new centrist party, a move that would have reshaped the Israeli political landscape.

Sharon is popular among the Israeli general public, and a new party under his leadership would have been expected to strengthen the political center, push Likud to the political fringe, and improve chances of a Mideast peace deal.

The vote Monday was the prime minister's latest triumph over party hard-liners who have tried to block him since he announced plans for the Gaza withdrawal nearly two years ago.

Also Monday, Israeli businessman Sasson Nuriel, 51, was found dead near the West Bank town of Ramallah after being kidnapped by Palestinian militants, the AP reports.

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