Sharon wins big in Likud vote

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JERUSALEM — The Likud has begun looking ahead to the next two years following the election of Ariel Sharon as party leader on Thursday of last week.

Sharon won a landslide majority with 53 percent of the vote, followed by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert with 24 percent and former Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit with 22 percent.

Sharon managed to get almost double the number of votes Olmert received even in Jerusalem, the mayor's home turf.

The turnout in the elections was low, just 35 percent of those eligible to vote. Party sources said people stayed away because they are waiting for the real race in two years.

Olmert and Sheetrit congratulated Sharon, but both noted his promise to hold another primary election for party leadership in two years or before any national elections.

Sharon last week repeated that he would not lead the Likud into the Barak government.

There has been speculation — denied by all the players — that Sharon intends to rebuild the party and then hand it back to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Kiryat Shmona, Sharon told reporters, "I don't know what Benjamin Netanyahu's plans are. I have never spoken to him about this. I am not preparing the ground for anyone. I took it upon myself to turn the Likud into the biggest movement in Israel — the biggest nationalist-Zionist democratic movement — and prepare it for the victory in the next elections."

Netanyahu, who voted in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara, refused to speak to the press, saying only, "I'm on vacation. I came to vote, not to give interviews. I'm currently on vacation from interviews as well."

He was met by chants of: "He'll be back! He'll be back!"

Olmert, too, rejected a Netanyahu comeback, saying, "It is always those who don't run who are most popular."

"The situation was not clear and continues to be unclear," said former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who endorsed Olmert. "Everybody talks about signs and signals regarding the next two years, but no one knows exactly in what directions the signs will point. And I also don't know where the Likud is going."