TEL AVIV — Ariel Sharon’s narrow victory in a battle for leadership of the Likud party highlights the Israeli prime minister’s remarkable transformation from right-wing hawk to centrist.
The former general, who participated in every one of Israel’s wars since the creation of the Jewish State in 1948, received 51 percent of an intra-party ballot held Monday night while former premier Benjamin Netanyahu achieved 47 percent, thus averting early national elections.
The vote was the culmination of a policy which stunned opponents and supporters alike — his plan, realized last month, to remove Israeli settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip and give it to the Palestinians as a way to “disengage” from conflict.
But while his stand is popular with many Israelis, particularly those aligned with the coalition Labor party, it cost Sharon the support of many Likud loyalists who were angered at what they saw as a betrayal of a biblical birthright by the very man that was once their biggest booster.
The future is by no means clear
It's a long way from Sharon’s starting point as Israel's prime minister in February 2001 when he beat Labor's Ehud Barak, in part by accusing him of making too many concessions to the Palestinians.
Not that the future is likely to be plain sailing for Sharon: On Tuesday Likud opponents vowed to continue to fight against his leadership. In addition, an uneasy truce with the Palestinians, brokered before the withdrawal, is now unraveling after militant-launched rocket attacks against Israeli towns outside the Gaza Strip.
With armor and artillery now poised on Gaza's borders and Israel vowing to destroy radical Palestinian groups, the possibility of resuming meaningful peace talks seems remote. However, many Israelis believe that only Sharon is now capable of achieving peace and guaranteeing security for Israel.
Tom Aspell is an NBC News Correspondent based in Tel Aviv. Reuters contributed to this report.