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Netanyahu set for Sharon clash

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Ariel Sharon
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JERUSALEM, Israel (CNN) -- Three weeks after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bolted its ranks, Israel's right-wing Likud party Monday turned to Sharon's long-time rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as its new leader.

Netanyahu, 56, who served as Israel's prime minister for three years before being ousted by voters in 1999, easily won the party's leadership primary over three challengers, setting up an election grudge match in March with Sharon.

"Tonight, the Likud is beginning its way back to the leadership of the country," Netanyahu said in a victory speech at party headquarters.

Sharon left Likud to form a new centrist party, Kadima, in hopes of pushing forward his plans for pulling Israeli settlements out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu and a large segment of Likud are opposed to the pullout.

Meanwhile, Sharon's doctors said Monday that the 77-year-old prime minister should make a full recovery from a mild stroke he suffered Sunday while en route to his ranch in the Negev Desert.

Tamir Ben Hur, head of neurology at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, said a small blood clot briefly blocked a blood vessel in Sharon's brain. But he never lost consciousness, and the clot was dissolved with medication, Ben Hur said.

"Our comprehensive investigation has shown definitely that the stroke will not leave any damage or traces," he said.

Doctors said the prime minister should be able to go home from the hospital Tuesday. (Full story)

In his victory speech, Netanyahu offered a wish for the prime minister's "complete recovery and good health."

Sharon, who helped found Likud in the 1970s, turned Israeli politics on its head November 21, when he announced he was leaving the party, which was bitterly divided over his controversial disengagement plan. In forming Kadima, Sharon hopes to capture support from the Israeli political center.

Last August, Netanyahu, trying to capitalize on anger within the party over the Gaza pullout, resigned as Sharon's finance minister to try to unseat him as Likud's leader.

In September, party leaders rebuffed Netanyahu's challenge by refusing to move up a scheduled primary, but the vote was close, showing how badly Likud was split over Sharon's leadership.

Since the prime minister left its ranks, support for Likud, which has been a dominant force in Israeli politics for nearly 30 years, has dropped dramatically.

Polls show Sharon's Kadima in the lead for the March 28 election, followed by the center-left Labor Party, under new leader Amir Peretz, with Likud trailing in third place.

Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996 but was defeated in 1999 by Labor's then-leader, Ehud Barak. In the wake of his defeat, Netanyahu resigned as Likud's leader and was succeeded by Sharon.

In 2002, after Likud had returned to power under Sharon, Netanyahu tried to make a comeback by ousting him as party leader and prime minister. But Sharon won the intra-party showdown.

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