Sharon may be preparing way for Netanyahus return

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JERUSALEM — Outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon has won the first round in the three-way battle for the leadership of the Likud Party.

But some observers are saying that Sharon, far from preparing to run for the premiership when the nation's next elections are held, is busy clearing a path for the man who led Likud when it was battered at the polls last month — outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sharon won a procedural vote Monday night, when the Likud Party's Central Committee agreed to elect a new leader in September and wait two years before selecting a candidate for prime minister.

After the vote was taken, Ehud Olmert's face said it all.

The mayor of Jerusalem's smile, painfully artificial as he stood in a three-way handshake with his two rivals for the leadership of Likud, made it clear he had lost the first skirmish in this battle.

Sharon, Likud's interim leader since Netanyahu stepped down after the May 17 elections, was far more confident as he took part in the handshake.

Outgoing Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit, the third candidate for the party leadership, was also smiling, though observers feel he will not have much to be happy about when the party's primary is held in September. His candidacy is seen as strategic rather than realistic.

In the run-up to Monday's vote, Olmert and Sheetrit had demanded that the September primary determine the party's leader for a full four-year term, in order to carry Likud into the next election.

Sharon, backed by most of the outgoing cabinet, insisted on a two-year term designed "to reconstruct" the shattered party. After that, there would be a second primary to determine who would be Likud's next candidate for prime minister.

Olmert and Sheetrit had called for a secret ballot, but that was voted down.

At the last minute, Olmert and Sheetrit backed off their motion for a single primary and accepted Sharon's proposal without a vote.

For the moment, Olmert was visibly crestfallen, having been beaten — on live, prime-time television — by Sharon.

Olmert, already campaigning energetically for the party leadership, claims that if he wins, most or all of the senior figures who left the party under Netanyahu's leadership will return.

Indeed, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would certainly return to the party's ranks if the Jerusalem mayor wins.

Olmert also believes his close personal friends, Dan Meridor and Roni Milo, now in the Center Party, would also come back to Likud, along with Center leader Yitzhak Mordechai and possibly even former Foreign Minister David Levy.

But Olmert is up against a solid body of Likud opinion that blames him for Netanyahu's election defeat.

The Jerusalem mayor made little effort to conceal his contempt for Netanyahu as his tenure in the premiership wore on.

Olmert actively considered running against Netanyahu in the pre-election Likud primaries, and later took little part in the campaign for Netanyahu's re-election.

But is Sharon, now into his 70s, a serious contender for the prime ministership in an election that could be four years away?

That question is providing tension and fascination for Likud loyalists and outside pundits alike.

Perhaps — and the possibility seems less fantastic with each passing day — Sharon is acting on behalf of none other than Netanyahu himself.

Perhaps the defeated prime minister, who announced within minutes of last month's exit poll results that he was quitting politics, is in fact planning his comeback.

Sharon's two-year leadership bid would seem to dovetail perfectly into a Netanyahu comeback strategy.