Top officials from the ruling Likud party voted Monday in a crucial poll that could decide whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dissolves his government, bolts the party he helped found three decades ago and creates a new centrist party to run in early elections.
The vote was ostensibly about whether to move up the party primary from April to November.
However, both Sharon and his main challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, have turned the vote into a show of confidence. Sharon's aides have hinted he would quit the Likud if defeated. Netanyahu's demand for a decision on an early primary date was seen as part of an effort to push Sharon out and punish him for the Gaza pullout.
By Monday afternoon, about 20 percent of the 3,000-member Likud Central Committee had voted, according to Israel's Channel 2 television. Most of the committee members were expected to vote after work, before the polls closed at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT). Recent opinion polls gave Netanyahu a slight advantage.
"I hope that members of the party will come to vote against this proposal, which will badly harm the Likud," a smiling Sharon said as he cast his ballot Monday afternoon at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds, the site of a raucous party convention Sunday night.
At the convention, Sharon twice rose to speak, but both times found the microphone, which had been used by a series of earlier speakers, suddenly disconnected. Party officials said the microphone had been sabotaged.
After waiting for nearly half an hour, Sharon left the hall without speaking, in an incident that political analysts called an embarrassment for the party.
"The Likud displayed the signs of a ruling party in the process of imploding," journalist Daniel Ben Simon wrote in the Haaretz daily.
In his speech, Netanyahu accused the premier of betraying the party's ideals by pulling out of Gaza and said he needed to be removed from power.
"They are telling us they will continue with painful concessions," Netanyahu said in his speech Sunday, not referring to Sharon by name. "Don't we have enough with the Hamas state in Gaza? ... We will all be in danger."
Netanyahu is expected to benefit from an early primary by capitalizing on the party anger against Sharon for the Gaza pullout, which Israel completed two weeks ago. Sharon favors a later primary, which would give him time to rebuild his support within the party.
Sharon's allies have suggested that if he loses the vote Monday, he might not bother challenging Netanyahu at all, choosing instead to bolt the party and form a new centrist party to run in early elections.