Statehood Vote First Step in Netanyahu's Comeback

It was Benjamin Netanyahu's night. 

The former Israeli leader delivered a major defeat to Ariel Sharon, the man he wants to replace as leader of the Likud Party and Israeli prime minister. The vehicle: a resolution ruling out the establishment of a Palestinian state that was approved overwhelmingly during a tumultuous Likud convention, over Sharon's objections. 

"The war of succession between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu ... erupted yesterday like a terrifying volcano," the Haaretz daily wrote Monday. 

Sharon and Netanyahu sat side-by-side on the podium of the Tel Aviv convention center Sunday evening, but did not speak to each other. 

In his speech, Netanyahu delivered a stinging attack on Sharon's policies and accused him of undermining Israeli security. Without mentioning Netanyahu by name, Sharon referred derisively to those who fight terror by giving speeches. 

The Likud Central Committee does not have the power to unseat Sharon and crown Netanyahu prime minister, but its overwhelming approval of Netanyahu's resolution on Palestinian statehood showed Sharon's weakness within his own camp. 

Political commentator Hanan Crystal said the defeat in his party would bring Sharon more popularity among the wider public for refusing to back down; a majority of Israelis have accepted the idea of eventual Palestinian statehood. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of the center-left Labor Party said the Likud vote "is completely and blatantly opposite to the desire of the nation," but that his party would not leave the government as long as Sharon honored the coalition guidelines calling for land-for-peace negotiations with the Palestinians. 

Cabinet minister Tsipi Livni of Likud warned that the resolution would hurt Israel's image. "We, who really acted as a state seeking peace, are presenting a position that could put us outside the picture in any negotiations," Livni said. 

President Bush has called for a Palestinian state, and Saudi Arabia is promoting a peace initiative that would give the Palestinians a state. 

Sharon has said creation of a Palestinian state is "inevitable" but has set a series of stringent conditions for creating one. 

Opposition to Palestinian statehood has long been part of the Likud platform, and it appeared that in introducing a special resolution on the issue, Netanyahu was seeking a springboard for seizing party leadership. Netanyahu is a hard-liner who advocates the expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. 

Arafat denounced the decision, calling it "the destruction of the Oslo agreement." The Oslo agreement is a set of interim peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians negotiated in the mid-1990s. 

"Much has been unmasked," added Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. "This just shows that the war being waged by Israel against the Palestinians is not a war against what they call terror, it's really their war to maintain the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza." 

At the Likud convention, Sharon tried to prevent the vote, fearing it will increase international pressure on Israel and tie his hands in potential negotiations. 

Employing his combative oratory, Netanyahu dismissed broad international support for Palestinian statehood. "Did the world lift a finger to prevent the Holocaust?" he asked, invoking the most emotion-laden issue in Israeli politics. 

Netanyahu rode his oratory and hard-line politics to the premiership in 1996, but lasted only three years. Netanyahu's often divisive style alienated allies, infuriated opponents and frustrated world leaders. After losing his majority in parliament, Netanyahu lost an election to the rival Labor party's Ehud Barak in 1999. 

Netanyahu stayed on the sidelines as Barak offered far-reaching concessions that the Palestinians rejected and violence broke out in September 2000 — and as Sharon soundly defeated Barak in a February 2001 elections. 

Sharon told the delegates that while he respected their wishes, he would "continue to lead the state of Israel and the people of Israel according to the same ideas that led me always — security for the state of Israel and its citizens and our desire for real peace."