JERUSALEM – Benjamin Netanyahu (search) blasted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, formally opening his campaign to unseat him with an appeal to nationalist members of their governing Likud Party.
The split in Israel's largest party has called into question whether Sharon's government can live out its term until November 2006 and move ahead on peacemaking with the Palestinians following the Gaza (search) pullout.
Netanyahu opened his campaign Wednesday in a hotly contested area of the West Bank (search), near Israel's largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim.
Netanyahu criticized Sharon for freezing a controversial government plan to construct 3,650 homes in the area to block a Palestinian hold there and on nearby east Jerusalem.
Sharon's Gaza withdrawal, he charged, has raised hopes in the international community that Israel would surrender more land to the Palestinians, including east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and considers part of its capital.
"He has created a precedent that will lead to the division of Jerusalem," Netanyahu told reporters during the tour. "My starting (my campaign) here is not coincidental because Jerusalem is in danger."
The United States and the Palestinians have condemned the Israeli construction plan. The Palestinians want to include the West Bank and east Jerusalem in a future state.
Sharon said this week that some West Bank settlements would be dismantled under a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. But he hopes to keep Israeli control over Maaleh Adumim and two other settlement blocs, where most of the West Bank's 246,000 settlers live.
Recent polls give Netanyahu a big edge over Sharon among Likud members.
But in a poll of the general public published Wednesday, Sharon came out far ahead. Fifty-four percent of respondents said the prime minister was best suited to head the government, compared with 21 percent for Netanyahu. The Dahaf survey questioned 501 people and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Earlier this week, Sharon accused Netanyahu, who was prime minister between 1996 and 1999, of possessing neither the judgment nor the nerves to run the country.
In other news:
— Israel's parliament approved the outlines of a deal for Egypt to station 750 police in a tense corridor along its border with Gaza. The agreement was designed to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal. The vote in favor of the deal was 53-28, with Netanyahu voting against.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in Jerusalem to finalize the details of the deployment. Suleiman said he expected both signs to sign a deployment agreement this week, Army Radio reported.
Mofaz told parliament that Israel and Egypt have yet to reach agreement on the contentious issue of international crossings for Gaza, but predicted a deal "would be completed very soon."
Israel insists on overseeing the flow of Palestinians into the coastal area, for fear weapons could be smuggled in. Egypt and the Palestinians insist that Israel relinquish this control.
— An Israeli court indicted a Jewish settler, Asher Weisgan, on four counts of murder in the shooting of four Palestinians in the West Bank on Aug. 17 in an effort to thwart the Gaza pullout.
— In Gaza, dozens of Palestinian youths stormed an empty Israeli army watchtower guarding the evacuated Gush Katif settlement bloc early Wednesday after Palestinian police raised a Palestinian flag there.
Police struggling to control the crowd fired shots in the air. One policeman was beaten by youths angry that their own security forces opened fire.
The incident raised questions about the ability of Palestinian police to maintain control over Gaza once the Israeli military withdrawal is completed in the coming weeks.