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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Analysis: Israel's divided right
Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu at Sunday's Likud conference
Sharon and Netanyahu do not see eye to eye
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By Gerald Butt
Middle East analyst
The central committee of the Likud party has done what surely no-one thought was possible: it has made Ariel Sharon look like something of a moderate - in the context of rightwing Israeli politics.

The overwhelming vote - contrary to the wishes of Mr Sharon - against the establishment of a Palestinian state has also given a huge boost to the political aspirations of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu speaks to Likud meeting
Netanyahu has political aspirations
The proposal to reject definitively Palestinian statehood came from a Likud MP who is a firm supporter of Mr Netanyahu.

In effect, then, a new campaign for the premiership has begun. And Mr Sharon's arch-rival will feel that it is only a matter of time before he returns to the office that he left in May 1999.

Disappointed hardliners

This is not to say that Mr Sharon will give up without a fight.

After the vote on Palestinian statehood, he said he would go on leading the country "according to principles I have always held: security for Israel and aspirations for peace."

Israeli tanks
Some say the army's response was too soft
But the problem for the prime minister, henceforth, is that he can no longer automatically rely on broad rightwing support in Israel.

Mr Sharon's tough military response to the suicide attacks won him praise from many sections of Israeli society.

But those on the far right were ultimately disappointed by the fact that, in their opinion, he was not tough enough.

Thus, for example, while he kept Yasser Arafat under siege for weeks in Ramallah, he ignored calls from Mr Netanyahu and others for the Palestinian leader to be removed permanently from the scene.

Cancelled attack

In the end, Mr Arafat emerged triumphant, with his popularity greater than it had been for decades.

The Bethlehem siege also ended with 13 of the men most wanted by Israel being flown out - as exiles, but also as free men.

Mr Sharon had promised that the 13 would stand trial in Israel.

Shortly after this, in the wake of another Palestinian suicide attack on a civilian target south of Tel Aviv, Mr Sharon prepared for a massive military operation in Gaza - only to cancel it at the last minute because details had been leaked.

This turn of events did nothing to convince Mr Sharon's critics on the right that his resolve had returned.

American involvement

The prime minister's critics also believe that his government has mishandled relations with the United States in a way that has allowed the Arab world - in particular Saudi Arabia - to get the ear of President Bush.

The Saudis communicated in the strongest language possible that US interests in the Arab world would be adversely affected if the Washington administration did not engage in efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict.

Reluctantly, Mr Bush has started to do that - a move that necessarily inhibits Israel's freedom of movement to some extent.

The Arabs argue that the US still has not done enough to restrain Israel.

And they would reject the suggestion that Mr Sharon is in any shape or form a moderate.

But in the wake of the Likud vote on Palestinian statehood, a day may be coming when a prime minister with even tougher plans for dealing with the Arabs returns to power.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"It's an open political secret that Ariel Sharon will face a challenge from Mr Netanyahu"
See also:

13 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Arafat's tour
13 May 02 | Middle East
Likud vote challenges Bush policy
13 May 02 | Middle East
Arafat rails against Likud setback
12 May 02 | Middle East
Likud embarrasses Sharon
12 May 02 | Middle East
Israel sends Gaza reservists home
16 Oct 01 | Middle East
Israel may accept Palestinian state
11 May 02 | Middle East
Arab leaders denounce violence
11 May 02 | Middle East
Church emerges unharmed from siege
10 May 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Calm end to siege
10 May 02 | Middle East
No winners from siege deal
11 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Bethlehem clean-up
10 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: End of Bethlehem siege
09 May 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
09 May 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem siege: Inside the negotiations
10 May 02 | Middle East
Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
13 May 02 | Middle East
Excerpts from Likud speeches
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