August 29, 2005

Sharon accuses rival Netanyahu of “losing his cool”

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
on Monday launched his strongest public attack on the man
opinion polls show could unseat him as Likud party leader,
saying Benjamin Netanyahu panics under pressure.

"Netanyahu feels the heat," Sharon told Channel 10
television, without giving any examples. "In any stressful
situation he immediately panics and loses his cool."

Netanyahu's spokesman was not immediately available for
comment. Israel Radio said Netanyahu, who led Israel from 1996
to 1999, will announce on Tuesday he intends to challenge
Sharon for the Likud leadership.

Opinion polls have shown Sharon, 77, in deep political
trouble in the right-wing Likud over the now-completed
evacuation of 9,000 Jewish settlers from the occupied Gaza
Strip and a corner of the West Bank.

Surveys indicate Sharon, branded a traitor by settlers he
once championed, would lose an expected party leadership
showdown with Netanyahu, 55, who resigned as finance minister
in protest at the pullout.

Netanyahu, a former commando who has won a reputation for
toughness in media interviews, received a political boost on
Monday when a Likud tribunal opened the way for the party's
hardline Central Committee to convene.

Political commentators predicted the Central Committee
would meet in late September and schedule a leadership vote for
late this year or early in 2006, giving Sharon relatively
little time to try to bridge the gap with Netanyahu.

Sharon is scheduled to attend the World Summit at the
United Nations in New York in mid-September, when he is likely
to receive international accolades for the first removal of
Israeli settlements from land Palestinians want for a state.

Sharon's political predicament has spurred speculation he
might opt to break away from the Likud, which he helped to
found, rather than face defeat in the party vote.

"Netanyahu is likely to win the (Likud) primary, probably
in late November -- and Sharon must decide what to do. I think
he will choose to form another party and run separately,"
political commentator Hanan Crystal said on Israel Radio.

"He could decide to go to the ranch, but that is difficult
to believe," Crystal said, referring to Sharon's possible
retirement to his sprawling homestead in southern Israel.

But some polls show Sharon, who enjoyed strong public
support for the Gaza withdrawal, would have a better chance
than Netanyahu of winning the next general election, which must
be held by November 2006.

Sharon could use those figures as leverage within Likud.