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Sharon fends off Likud challenge

Poll seen as key test of confidence for Israeli prime minister

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Sharon supporters applaud the result.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won an internal party procedural vote Monday seen by many political observers as a referendum on his leadership and his decision to pull settlers and troops out of Gaza.

Sharon fended off a challenge from political rival and former cabinet member Benjamin Netanyahu by a margin of less than 4 percent, 1,433 votes to 1,329.

Netanyahu had sought to take advantage of hard-line opposition to withdrawing from Gaza, which the Israelis had occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.

If Sharon had lost, he would likely have left the party, formed his own coalition and called for early elections.

The vote means Sharon will retain his position for at least another year; general elections are next scheduled to be held in November 2006.

Though members of his party contend he has betrayed the Likud Party's values by making concessions to Palestinians, Sharon remains popular among Israelis, with polls showing 60 percent to 65 percent of the electorate approving of the way he has handled the office.

Netanyahu, who served as prime minister for three years, was finance minister under Sharon and was credited with helping revive the Israeli economy. But he stepped down in protest of Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza.

Not yet 60, Netanyahu is widely expected to return to the political stage.

"We have gone through chapter one and lost by a few votes," he told supporters. "I have no doubt that in chapter two we will win, and the Likud will win."

Netanyahu, who had wanted an early primary to capitalize on anger over the Gaza withdrawal, conceded defeat but said Sharon cannot ignore the strong opposition against him within the party, The Associated Press reported.

Netanyahu has repeatedly warned the Gaza pullout would encourage Palestinian violence.

In response to recent rocket attacks by Palestinian militants, Israel launched a wide-ranging offensive across Gaza and the West Bank over the weekend. It continued Tuesday with arrests of suspected Palestinian militants. (Full story).

Early Monday, Israeli aircraft attacked suspected weapons factories around Gaza City as well as the southern Gaza towns of Rafah and Khan Yunis.

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