JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon narrowly survived a conservative revolt Monday as members of his dominant political party rejected attempts to drive the veteran leader from power.
By a slim 104-vote margin, Sharon's Likud Party turned down a request by its conservative wing to hold internal elections quickly in an effort to install a new leader.
The decision by the Likud's Central Committee quashed, at least temporarily, efforts to topple Sharon in retaliation his decision to withdraw all Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and end the nation's 38-year military rule over its 1.3 million Palestinians.
Sharon's victory gave Likud moderates a boost and provided the prime minister with more time to shore up his political base in preparation for the spring primaries and then the national elections, which don't have to be called until November 2006.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the attempt to undermine Sharon. Netanyahu had accused Sharon of betraying Likud Party principles by pressing ahead with the Gaza Strip withdrawal without getting any concessions from the Palestinian government.
Sharon had warned that his party would commit political "suicide that would spell the end of the Likud" if it adopted Netanyahu's hard-line bargaining positions. Faced with the conservative insurgency, Sharon aides had suggested that the prime minister might leave Likud and try to form a centrist political party if he lost.
In the end, more than 90 percent of the central committee's 3,000 members voted, with just 104 votes separating those who opposed the calls for an early primary from those who supported the proposal.
"You don't stop a high priest in the middle of his reign and don't rebel against him," Likud activist Koby Meshulam told Israeli television on Monday. "And you don't rebel against a successful prime minister in the middle of his success."
Netanyahu supporters voiced disappointment, but they vowed to press ahead and challenge Sharon when the party primaries are held as planned this spring.
The vote came as Israel continued an offensive against Islamic militants, who've launched a series of attacks on Jewish communities surrounding the Gaza Strip that have wounded a handful of Israelis.
Israeli forces staged another round of air strikes in the Gaza Strip. The strikes so far have killed at least three top militants and wounded about two dozen Palestinians. In the midst of the Israeli strikes, the leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas called for an immediate end to rocket attacks on Israel.
But a second group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, vowed to exact revenge on Israelis for the assassination of a top military commander in the Gaza Strip.
The violent attacks, the worst flare-up since Israel ended its 38 years of military rule in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago, also gave Sharon's critics political ammunition.
Netanyahu said the Palestinian rocket attacks were proof that Sharon's Gaza Strip withdrawal had done nothing to assuage Palestinians or entice militants to halt their attacks on Israel.
(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu
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