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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sharon Projected to Remain Likud Head

JERUSALEM -- A deadly shooting spree Thursday by a pair of Palestinian gunmen at a polling station in northern Israel, and twin attacks on Israeli tourists in faraway Kenya, marred a Likud Party leadership primary in which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was expected to defeat Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Likud race was widely seen as determining who will lead Israel after the Jan. 28 general election, because the rightist bloc of parties led by Likud has enjoyed commanding leads in the polls over the dovish bloc led by the Labor Party.

As the month-long campaign wound down, polls among the 300,000 Likud party members showed Sharon ahead by more than 20 percent over the once-favored Netanyahu, who himself served as prime minister between 1996 and 1999. TV projections and early results were expected after polls closed at 10 p.m.

Five Israelis were shot dead at a Likud branch packed with voters and a nearby outdoor bus terminal in the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean. In Kenya, at least two Israelis, six Kenyans and three suicide bombers died in an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel, and two missiles just missed a commercial Israeli airliner after takeoff.

At a news conference, Sharon urged Likud members to vote despite the Beit Shean attack, claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade militia linked to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

"We cannot allow the murderers disrupt our lives," he said. "The Palestinian Authority and Arab countries want to intervene in our democratic process."

It was not clear how Thursday's attacks would influence the Likud vote -- although historically terrorism has tended to make Israelis more hawkish, which could help Netanyahu.

Furthermore, Israeli media reported turnout was unusually low -- a trend that, if it persists, could significantly skew the results.

Despite the shooting, voting continued at Likud branches throughout the country.

The winner will face Labor's ex-general Amram Mitzna, who favors an immediate return to peace talks with the aim of swiftly withdrawing troops and settlers from most of the West Bank and Gaza, territories Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

He supports a far-reaching settlement with the Palestinians and says he is willing to withdraw from some areas unilaterally if no deal is made.

Sharon says all violence must stop before peace talks resume. He has said he favors a Palestinian state eventually -- albeit a restricted one -- but few believe he would meet the Palestinians' demands for a state comprising all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Since coming to power 21 months ago in the early days of the Palestinian uprising, Sharon has overseen a gradual escalation of military efforts to crush radical Palestinian groups that have waged a campaign against Israel.

Netanyahu, who opposes Palestinian independence entirely, says Sharon's efforts to crush the uprising have not been forceful enough. He also calls for expelling Arafat -- a move Sharon has refrained from ordering.

Netanyahu was once considered practically a shoo-in for a return to the prime minister's position.

But he appears to have been outmaneuvered after Labor bolted Sharon's coalition last month: Sharon appointed Netanyahu foreign minister, a position from which he risked appearing disloyal whenever he criticized Sharon.

The two years of violence have moved Israelis to the right, and polls suggest that the Likud leader will have the best chance of winning January's poll.