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Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 13:38 GMT
Likud voters pick their candidate
Ariel Sharon, after casting his ballot
Sharon is claiming the political middle ground
Members of Israel's right-wing Likud Party is voting for a new leader, in preparation for a general election early next year.


Leaderships that... threaten the security of civilisation cannot take territory and do what they like on it

Binyamin Netanyahu
The current head of the party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - who is widely expected to win - is facing a challenge from Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Security is a leading issue in the vote - which is being overshadowed by the suicide attack against an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya.

Mr Sharon is portraying himself as a national father figure and the voice of moderation on the Palestinian issue, while Mr Netanyahu says he will never agree to the creation of a Palestinian state.

More than 300,000 Likud members are eligible to vote. Exit poll results are due to be released immediately after balloting ends at 2200 (2000GMT).

Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife vote
Netanyahu says he can still win

The latest opinion polls give Mr Sharon a commanding lead of over 20%, but Mr Netanyahu has accused pollsters of exaggerating the difference between them.

A third candidate, Moshe Feiglin - who has advocated a Jewish "holy war" - is expected to win no more than 2%.

The winner will become the favourite to be prime minister after a general election due on 28 January.

State 'inevitable'

A central platform of Mr Netanyahu's campaign is a pledge to send Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat into exile.


I promised peace and security, and I will bring peace and security

Ariel Sharon

This, he says, is the first thing he will do if elected.

Mr Netanyahu, himself a former Likud Prime Minister, has compared Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority to Afghanistan's Taleban.

"Leaderships that break free of law and order and threaten the security of civilisation cannot take territory and do what they like on it," Mr Netanyahu told Israel's Maariv newspaper.

The clearest policy difference between the rival contenders is over Mr Netanyahu's opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke in Jerusalem says Mr Sharon is no enthusiast for the idea. But he has, it seems, come to see such a development as almost inevitable.

Opinion poll
Sharon: 61%
Netanyahu: 37%
Feiglin: 2%
Source: Haaretz newspaper

"I don't think there is one statesman who would oppose such a state," Mr Sharon told Maariv earlier this week.

Israeli TV reports that Mr Sharon has also been reassuring the United States that it should not pay any attention to attacks by Mr Netanyahu on US peace efforts.

When Mr Sharon was elected prime minister early in 2001, he was seen as a hardliner with little taste for compromise.

He has acknowledged that he had not yet delivered on his key campaign pledge to end violence.

"I promised peace and security, and I will bring peace and security," Mr Sharon told Israel's Yediot newspaper.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Michael Voss
"He's fighting for his political future as the voice of moderation"
Likud supporter Tzvi Berg
"I think we need a change in Israel"

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28 Nov 02 | Middle East
28 Nov 02 | Media reports
27 Nov 02 | Middle East
04 Nov 02 | Middle East
07 Nov 02 | Middle East
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