Former Israeli Minister of Finance Benjamin Netanyahu would win over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by a margin of 47 to 32 percent if primary elections for the Likud party leadership were held today, according to a poll of Likud members sponsored by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Israeli sources said public support for disengagement dropped after the resignation of Netanyahu, who has sharply criticized Sharon’s plan.

Commenting on the poll’s results, Haaretz said Sharon has paid a heavy price for his disengagement initiative:

‘As of now, he has lost his party – his political home. He will therefore face a difficult choice after the pullout is completed: Should he risk running against Netanyahu for the party leadership or, as his advisers are recommending, split the Likud and take his supporters into a new political party?’

The poll was conducted on Monday, more than 24 hours after Netanyahu resigned from the cabinet, and indicates that his move sharply increased his support within the Likud.

Apparently, this is the first time Netanyahu has beaten Sharon in Likud polls.  In previous polls, Sharon has always led Netanyahu, although in recent weeks the gap had narrowed to 8.6 percent, according to Haaretz.

Analysts say Netanyahu’s resignation was a political move to get back on the top of the Likud hierarchy.

The poll shows that Netanyahu would get 35 percent of the vote, compared to 29 percent for Sharon and 17 percent for Uzi Landau, if a three-way race were to be held.

Landau, known to be the leader of the Likud anti-disengagement camp, formally announced his candidacy on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the 2006 state budget prepared by Netanyahu was approved by the Knesset despite the opposition of most Labor members. Several prominent Likud members who had also threatened to vote against the budget changed their minds after several amendments were adopted.