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 Friday, 29 November, 2002, 06:47 GMT
Sharon re-elected party leader
Ariel Sharon thanks supporters in Tel-Aviv
Sharon's victory was overshadowed by the attacks
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been re-elected leader of his Likud party by a wide margin.

Mr Sharon beat his main challenger, Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, by 15 percentage points, according to official results released on Friday.

Congratulating Mr Sharon, Mr Netanyahu said: "We must ensure that the next government will have the power to defeat terror."

Final results
Ariel Sharon: 55.8%
Binyamin Netanyahu:40.8%
Moshe Feiglin: 3.4%

The voting was overshadowed by a deadly gun attack on a polling station in the northern town of Beit Shean and a double attack on Israeli tourists in Kenya. Nine Israelis in all died in the attacks.

Mr Sharon is now set to lead the centre-right Likud into the January general election against the Labour Party's dovish new leader, Amram Mitzna.

Likud is well ahead of Labour in opinion polls.


Mr Sharon won 55.8% of the Likud members' votes against 40.8% for Netanyahu and 3.4% for far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin.

Only 46 percent of Likud's 305,000 members voted in Thursday's party primary election.

Ariel Sharon (left) and Binyamin Netanyahu
The bitter rivals called for unity

Mr Sharon cancelled victory celebrations in light of the day's attacks on Israelis.

In a brief and sombre victory speech after a minute of silence for the victims of the attacks, he said: "This is not a night to celebrate. We have had a very difficult day."

But, he added, "We are a strong people and will defeat terror... Our long arm will get those who carried out the terror attacks. No one will be forgiven."

Having walked onto the stage with the defeated challenger on his side, Mr Sharon spoke of unity, saying that "we won't surrender to political divisions".

"We are a strong party and will stand together and rule the nation."

Mr Netanyahu - who until recently was seen as Likud's prime minister-in-waiting - also spoke of unity, pledging to work with Mr Sharon.

Party members said they hoped the two bitter rivals could get over their differences to help Likud face the violence and the forthcoming elections.

Voters attacked

The Likud offices in Beit Shean were packed with party members out to vote when two suspected Palestinian gunmen struck.

Four Israelis were killed at the scene, with two later dying in hospital. About 20 were injured, including three children of former Foreign Minister David Levy, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

Four of the six killed in the attack will be buried in Beit Shean in a joint service later on Friday, according to the Ha'aretz.

Israeli medic tends to man wounded in Beit Shean
Some of the wounded were airlifted to hospital in Haifa
The gunmen, who reportedly fired at random and also hurled grenades, were themselves shot dead by Israelis.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a Palestinian group connected to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said it carried out the attack saying it was revenge for the death of two militants in Jenin earlier in the week.

The attack was condemned by Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority which said it would "not help the Palestinian people and its cause".

The election also came amidst two attacks on Israeli tourists in Kenya which left at least 15 people dead.

Policy clash

The clearest policy difference between the Likud contenders had been 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 has, it seems, come to see such a development as almost inevitable.

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

  The BBC's Michael Voss in Jerusalem
"The race for party leadership was overshadowed by the killings at home and abroad"

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See also:

27 Nov 02 | Middle East
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