A Sept. 26 article misstated the age of Israel's Likud Party. Likud began as a coalition of parties in 1973 and became an independent political party in 1988. (Published 9/29/2005)
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a founder of the Likud Party and currently its leader, was prevented from speaking at an important party convention Sunday by what his supporters said was an act of sabotage, a sign of the deep internal strife within the movement over the recent Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
At the same time, in Gaza City, a senior leader of Hamas said the radical Palestinian group would stop firing rockets into Israel following an intensive two-day Israeli military operation and mass arrests designed to put down such attacks. The announcement followed an Israeli missile strike that killed a senior military leader of Islamic Jihad, a smaller faction that, like Hamas, rejects Israel's right to exist. [Israeli aircraft fired missiles early Monday at several sites in Gaza, including the town of Khan Younis, the Reuters news agency reported. At least one woman was lightly injured.]
Sharon, addressing the Likud Central Committee on the eve of a critical vote that could decide his future in the party, stepped to the podium as hundreds of Likud officials left the convention hall in protest. As he began to speak, the microphone cut out. The sound could not be restored. After waving silently to the raucous crowd, Sharon left the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds surrounded by a phalanx of body guards.
"It's terrible that such a thing happened, even if it's just a technical problem," said Gideon Ariel, a Central Committee member who opposes Sharon. "He is the prime minister of Israel, for God's sakes, and it just doesn't look good. But whether it will make any difference or not depends very much on how it is spun over the next day or so."
Sharon's speech and one given by his main rival for the leadership of Likud, Binyamin Netanyahu, were meant to be the first in a series of events this week that will likely determine whether the prime minister remains a member of the party he helped found 22 years ago.
The 3,000-member Central Committee is due to vote Monday on whether to hold the party primary in November, six months ahead of schedule. The internal ballot would likely trigger early national elections, now scheduled for November 2006, if Sharon were to lose.
Most public opinion polls suggest that Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister from 1996 to 1999, would defeat Sharon if the primary were held today. It would be the first time a party ousted its leader while he was serving as prime minister. Sharon has said a vote to move up the primaries would be tantamount to impeachment, but he has been cagey about whether he would leave Likud if the Central Committee took that step.
In a generational realignment precipitated by the unilateral Gaza withdrawal, Sharon, 77, might join forces with Shimon Peres, leader of the more dovish Labor Party, and the head of the secular centrist Shinui party, Yosef Lapid, to form a new movement that polls show would fare well in national elections.
Those same polls present a quandary for the Likud Central Committee, which is considered more hawkish than the party's general membership. Likud holds 40 seats in the Knesset, Israel's 120-seat parliament. Some polls show Likud winning fewer than 20 seats without Sharon as its leader.
But there is deep anger in the party ranks over Sharon's order to withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza, moves that were rejected soundly in an internal Likud referendum last year. Ariel said the decision on whether to move up the primary would likely depend on 500 Central Committee members who had yet to declare their positions.
In ordering the Gaza pullout, Sharon went against decades of Likud doctrine supporting Jewish settlements on land that Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. He said doing so would give Israel more defensible borders and protect the long-term viability of its Jewish majority from the fast-growing population of Gaza, where 8,500 Jewish settlers lived amid 1.3 million Palestinians. Gaza and the West Bank are envisioned as the territory for a future Palestinian state.
Netanyahu, 55, resigned as Sharon's finance minister to protest the withdrawal eight days before it was scheduled to begin. Over the past year, he has supported the plan in the cabinet while seeking to derail it through a public referendum. In his speech Sunday, Netanyahu suggested that Sharon's decision to leave Gaza without first securing concessions from the Palestinians had placed Likud to the left of Israel's most dovish political movements and politicians.
"They are telling us they will continue with the painful concessions," he said. "Don't we have enough with the Hamas state in Gaza?"
The convention coincided with violence in Gaza that Sharon aides worry may hurt his chances of defeating the move for an early primary. Following a barrage of more than 40 rudimentary rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad into Israel, the military has begun a series of aerial and artillery strikes inside Gaza.
At least two fighters from Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, were killed Saturday in an Israeli helicopter strike, and Israeli troops arrested 206 suspected Palestinian fighters Sunday morning, many of them members of the group. A senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, told reporters in Gaza City on Sunday evening that the group would immediately stop the attacks.
About an hour earlier, an Israeli military aircraft fired missiles at a white Mercedes south of Gaza City, killing two Palestinians. One of the men was Mohammed Khalil, 32, the leader of Islamic Jihad's military wing for the southern Gaza Strip.