December 22, 2005
Bibi Up, Sharon Down —for Now
Former prime minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is back in control of Israel's Conservative Likud Party as his onetime ally and current rival, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, recovers from a mild stroke.
Exit polls showed Netanyahu winning Monday's Likud Party leadership primary with 47 percent of the vote, well ahead of the 32 percent taken by his top rival, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
The victory helped rally a right-wing party still reeling from the defection last month of its previous chairman, Prime Minister Sharon. The fact that Netanyahu's victory came as Sharon recovered in the hospital only raised the stakes in a general election scheduled for March 28.
Before the primary, opinion polls showed the Likud trailing both Sharon's new centrist Kadima movement and the center-left Labor Party. With Netanyahu at Likud's helm and Sharon's health in doubt, however, the political prospects could change.
Despite his age and obesity, Sharon, 77, has been relatively healthy. He will need his strength to fight off Netanyahu, 56, a polished campaigner.
Sharon on Monday appeared to be recovering well from the stroke he suffered last weekend, but his illness probably will have some political ramifications.
His health likely will become a campaign issue, with rival parties contending that Sharon's brief hospitalization highlights the fact that Kadima is a one-man party. If anything happens to Sharon, the argument goes, Kadima and any government it heads could fall apart.