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November 28, 2002

Sharon set to vanquish Netanyahu in primary

Bibi's camp worries that his political life will be finished if Israeli Prime Minister wins convincingly in leadership race.
TEL AVIV -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is set to win a remarkable victory over his Likud party archrival Benjamin Netanyahu today, capping a primary campaign in which he provocatively argued that Palestinians will eventually get a sovereign state.

The concession was a stunning turnaround for the man who was once regarded as the most extreme right-winger of stature in Israeli politics, and who many thought would run a poor second to Mr. Netanyahu in the affections of the Likud faithful.

Polls published in Israeli newspapers yesterday showed Mr. Sharon running more than 20 percentage points ahead of Mr. Netanyahu, a smooth-talking former prime minister who recently joined Mr. Sharon's cabinet as Foreign Minister after a three-year absence from public office.

In an interview in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper yesterday, Mr. Sharon dismissed what he called the "hard-line slogans" of Mr. Netanyahu, who has opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state under any circumstances.

"Will we stay in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem forever?" Mr. Sharon asked, referring to West Bank cities that have been occupied by Israeli troops. "Will we stay in Hebron forever? Inside Gaza?"

Although Mr. Netanyahu, nicknamed Bibi, was badly beaten in a 1999 general election after three years as prime minister, he remained the darling of the Israeli right because of his conservative views on economics and security.

He began his campaign to win back the party's leadership with a critique of Mr. Sharon's handling of Israel's shaky economy. However, when that didn't seem to help his standing in the polls, he shifted to a shrill attack on Mr. Sharon's approach to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Even after joining the cabinet, Mr. Netanyahu continued to advocate the expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a step Mr. Sharon has resisted under U.S. pressure.

More significantly, Mr. Netanyahu said that after the coming elections he could not remain in a government that advocated Palestinian statehood.

"After 10 years of terrible terror with the Palestinian Authority, is there anyone left who does not understand that the PA intends to destroy [Israel]?" Mr. Netanyahu asked.

The differences between the two men may be more stylistic and rhetorical than real. But instead of reacting defensively, Mr. Sharon used Mr. Netanyahu's criticisms as leverage to reposition himself closer to the middle ground of Israeli politics.