Tel Aviv, Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon survived a major challenge to his leadership in the party he helped found, narrowly claiming victory Monday in a vote widely seen as a referendum on his rule and the recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
The victory capped a dramatic comeback for Sharon, who has been vilified by Likud Party hard-liners for the Gaza pullout and who had been trailing in recent opinion polls. Sharon's supporters said the victory meant the prime minister would push forward with his peace efforts.
"The argument over whether or not Sharon's vision was the Likud's vision is over with this vote," Roni Bar-On, a pro-Sharon lawmaker, told Israel Radio.
Monday's vote by the 3,000-member Likud central committee was ostensibly over a procedural issue: whether to hold elections for party leader in April, as scheduled, or move up the primary to November. But Sharon and his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the ballot amounted to a vote of confidence in the prime minister.
Netanyahu, who accused Sharon of abandoning the hawkish Likud Party's nationalist roots by carrying out the withdrawal, pushed for an early primary to capitalize on anger against the prime minister.
Likud members voted 1,433 to 1,329 in favor of keeping the schedule intact, according to official results announced just after midnight. Turnout was 91 percent.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister, conceded defeat Monday, but said he would continue his campaign to oust Sharon.
Sharon did not immediately react to the vote.