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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lost a crucial vote to his rival former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu tonight, as Israel’s ruling Likud Party passed a resolution saying it would never agree to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The 1,100 members of Likud cheered, booed, stamped, and brawled as two strong figures, the incumbent prime minister and ex-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, also known as “Bibi,” fought it out before them.

Sharon got the applause, but Netanyahu won their votes by a 59-to-41 percent margin.

The ex-prime minister summoned the session after calling into question Sharon’s acceptance of the principle of a Palestinian state.

This policy runs contrary to the Likud party manifesto that bars the establishment of a Palestinian state “west of the Jordan River.” Sharon tried and failed to prevent the session’s convening.

Neither could he prevent Netanyahu from calling for a vote reaffirming this clause in the party platform. Presenting his motion, Netanyahu attacked the prime minister on five grounds:

  • For stepping arbitrarily out of the terms of the party manifesto on Palestinian sovereignty without due democratic process;

  • For setting Arafat free instead of routing him;

  • For endorsing illusory reforms for the Palestinian Authority;

  • For proposing a regional peace conference;

  • For allowing the Israel-Palestinian conflict to be “internationalized.”

Netanyahu argued that while Palestinian self-rule is acceptable, a Palestinian state is dangerous – with or without Arafat, today or tomorrow. He said it would constitute a constant existential threat to the state of Israel, a springboard for its stage-by-stage destruction; and that they would have to accept either an Israel without a Palestinian state, or a Palestinian state without Israel.

Sharon steamrollered Netanyahu’s arguments, without mentioning him by name. He sneered at the “former prime minister,” who, he noted, endorsed the 1993 Oslo Peace accords, attended the 1992 Madrid international conference in his capacity as deputy foreign minister in the Shamir government and actually shook Arafat by the hand, something which Sharon has pointedly avoided.

He reiterated that Middle East peace was not possible without an end to terror and massive reforms of the Palestinian Authority, remarking that while some talk, others act. He also accused his rival of inducing a recurrence of the factional infighting that brought down previous Likud-led governments.

Sharon, concerned to preserve his national unity government alliance with the dovish Labor party, sought an all-purpose policy endorsement from his party that would leave his hands free to maneuver. He proposed that the central committee refrain from any resolution “pertaining to a final-status Israel-Palestinian settlement,” but instead declare the party united in its support for the Likud-led government, its prime minister and its government members, for their struggle against terror and efforts for peace.

Sharon made only one concession. He undertook to bring the issue of Palestinian statehood before the Likud if it became pertinent in the future.

The prime minister used his prerogative as party chairman to have his motion put to secret ballot in the central committee ahead of that of his rival. Since the two motions are mutually exclusive, if the first were carried, Netanyahu’s proposal would be automatically dropped. Sharon gambled and lost. The odds against him were impressive: 669 against; 465 for.

The prime minister rose and declared in a firm voice: “I respect the Likud Central Committee’s decision, as I respect any democratic decisions. I shall carry on leading the state of Israel and the people of Israel along the same guidelines as always – security for Israel and its citizens and the aspiration for genuine peace.

He then marched out, leaving a stunned party behind Netanyahu’s motion: “No Palestinian state will rise west of the Jordan” was swiftly carried by acclaim.

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