The resigned Israeli Minister of Finance Benjamin Netanyahu has decided, in a direct challenge to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to declare his candidacy on Tuesday for chairmanship of the Likud party to be the party’s candidate for premiership, Israeli sources reported.

Such a move, observers say, may cause the Likud to split especially that Sharon may start a splinter faction of his own.

Netanyahu officially declared that his is running for the Likud chairmanship and as candidate for the premiership.

‘The Likud today,’ said Netayahu in his declaration of candidacy press conference, ‘needs a leader who can unify the ranks, rehabilitate the ruins, and lead the Likud to victory, and who will then lead the state in the spirit of our principles, and believe that I can do that.’

‘Therefore, I today announce my candidacy for the leadership of the Likud, and for the premiership.’

The Likud party’s court, paved the way for Netanyahu to announce his candidacy when it ruled on Monday that the party’s Central Committee will vote in September on a proposal to advance the party’s leadership primaries.  Such ruling effectively means the beginning of the process to oust Sharon as the head of the party.

If this happens, it will be the first time that any party in Israel has tried to oust a serving prime minister as its chairman.

Sharon tried to prevent the central committee from convening for this purpose.  Therefore, this will be a defeat for him.

Recent polls among the Likud members show that Netanyahu is leading over Sharon.  Therefore, should the committee adopt the proposal submitted by his opponents, the primaries will likely take place in November, within 60 days of the vote.

Sharon then has to decide whether to run against Netanyahu or to quit and form his own party.

On the other hand, the Israeli Minister of Defense, Shaul Mofaz said he would run for Likud chairman and premiership if Sharon is not competing.