MAALE ADUMIM, West Bank (Reuters) -Benjamin Netanyahu launched his campaign to oust bitter rival Ariel Sharon as Israel”s prime minister with a call on Wednesday for massive new West Bank settlement construction.
Staking out the battleground for the right-wing power struggle triggered by Sharon”s removal of settlers from Gaza, Netanyahu urged immediate building — in defiance of Washington — on a particularly sensitive area outside East Jerusalem.
"The time has come to build here and I will build here," Netanyahu told reporters on the rocky hillside between Jerusalem and the biggest West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim.
Sharon says Israel plans to build in the E1-block despite U.S. criticism and the fury of the Palestinians, who fear it would further cut them off from the holy city they seek as the capital of a state under an eventual peace deal.
A police station is to be built in the block, but no housing is planned there immediately.
Netanyahu declared his challenge to Sharon for leadership of their ruling Likud party on Tuesday, a step that could lead to elections earlier than the due date of November 2006 and is likely to keep any peacemaking with the Palestinians on hold.
Netanyahu, 55, an ex-prime minister who resigned as Sharon”s finance minister over the Gaza withdrawal plan, is the darling of rightists who opposed giving up any settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.
They fear it sets a precedent for giving up homes on land to which settlers say they have a Biblical claim and that it rewards a Palestinian uprising.
Likud polls show Netanyahu would rout Sharon in a primary if it were held soon, but he has far greater national popularity — stirring speculation that he could break away to form a new centrist party.
Sharon, 77, once godfather of the settler movement, has vowed that Israel will never give up the biggest West Bank settlement blocs, but has said some isolated ones could go under an eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.
Most Israelis backed the removal of 9,000 settlers from Gaza and four of 120 West Bank enclaves housing over 245,000 Jews alongside 2.4 million Palestinians. Polls show support for removing more small West Bank settlements under any peace deal.
Netanyahu said Sharon”s removal of settlers from Gaza had paved the way for further pullbacks everywhere and suggested that could include Jerusalem, which Israel says is its undivided capital, a claim not recognized internationally.
Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem, captured with Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 war, for the capital of a state.
"We have seen on the hills that not a single home is being built by Israelis. The Palestinians have started building houses," Netanyahu said near Maale Adumim. "That is something that will change when we return the real Likud to power."
The World Court brands all the settlements illegal, though Israel disputes this and the United States has said Israel could expect to keep some West Bank land under any peace settlement that leads to Palestinian statehood.
Israel has failed to freeze all settlement construction and remove unauthorized settler outposts, as called for in a U.S.-inspired peace "road map." The Palestinians have not met their own commitment to start dismantling militant groups.
A poll in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth daily said 54 percent of Israelis preferred Sharon as prime minister while only 26 percent wanted Netanyahu.