Israel PM to quit Likud

Sharon to form new party, ally tells army radio


JERUSALEM -- Beset by dissidents in his party, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has decided to abandon the conservative Likud and plans to compete in early elections as head of a new party, Israeli news media reported yesterday.

Asaf Shariv, Sharon's top adviser, told the Associated Press the prime minister would make a formal announcement today and ask Israeli President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the parliament, which would trigger early elections.

Majalli Whbee, a Likud lawmaker who is close to Sharon, told army radio that the prime minister called him about his decision to form a new party.

Sharon's departure from Likud and formation of a new party would represent a tectonic shift in Israeli politics and a risky gambit for the 77-year-old prime minister.

Though bedeviled by members of his party who opposed Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank during the summer, Sharon remains the most popular politician in Israel. Still, analysts have noted that hurriedly formed centrist parties have not fared well at the polls in the past.

But none of the previous bids was by a sitting prime minister. Sharon gained considerable public backing by carrying out the Gaza withdrawal, and he could use a mandate gained through a new electoral victory to evacuate additional settlements in remote areas of the West Bank.

"We all know we are waking up to a new day," said Whbee, who has been mentioned along with a dozen or more Likud parliamentarians who might join with Sharon in forming a new party.

A spokesman for the prime minister would not confirm news reports about Sharon's decision to leave Likud. A report on the Web site of the daily Yediot Aharonot said Sharon was preparing separate speeches in case he decided to reverse course and remain in Likud, which he helped form in the 1970s. Sharon is scheduled to address a Likud gathering today.

Sharon is a master of political brinksmanship, and it remained unclear whether word of his departure might have been a late ploy aimed at bringing rebellious members of his party to heel.

Sharon pushed the Gaza withdrawal plan ahead despite vociferous resistance from right-wing figures allied with the settlers.

Sharon, once considered the godfather of the settlement movement, proposed the Gaza withdrawal as a way to reduce friction with the Palestinians and surrender land that he said Israel would be unlikely to retain in any eventual peace agreement. Opponents said the pullout amounted to giving in to Palestinian militants who have carried out a long series of attacks against Jewish settlers.

Sharon was said to be expecting 12 to 16 of the 40 Likud Knesset members, including several Cabinet ministers, to join him in the announcement to form a new party.

It is unclear whether Sharon would be joined in such a venture by Shimon Peres, the 82-year-old former leader of the left-leaning Labor Party. Peres was behind a decision by his party to join Sharon's coalition early this year as a way to keep the government afloat long enough to carry out the Gaza withdrawal.

But Peres was unseated as Labor chief two weeks ago by Amir Peretz, who opposed the alliance and reached an agreement with Sharon last week to hold early elections.

At a Cabinet meeting yesterday, probably the last of the current Cabinet, Sharon praised Peres and said, "This is the beginning of the joint work between us."

"I won't let you turn away from completing the missions you are destined for," Sharon said. "I'll call on your assistance in the future."

Labor formally voted yesterday to leave the governing coalition, a widely expected move that virtually assured elections would be held before their scheduled date next November. The Knesset was already scheduled to take up a motion this week to dissolve itself in anticipation of early elections.

Sharon had grown deeply frustrated by the rightist dissidents in his party, and aides worried that, if re-elected, he might be prevented from carrying out diplomatic initiatives as long as he remained in Likud.

Some pundits have speculated for months about a realignment in Israeli politics, often called the "big bang," with Sharon bolting to form a centrist alliance, possibly with Peres and Tommy Lapid, the head of the vehemently pro-secular Shinui Party. Other scenarios envisioned a more modest reshuffling with Sharon at the head of a new party.

Recent public-opinion polls have shown that Sharon, who is seeking a third consecutive term as premier, would probably prevail as head of Likud. The party would again end up with about one-third of the 120 Knesset positions if Sharon remained, according to the polls.

But those polls suggest that prospects are less certain if Sharon instead runs as the head of a new party. One survey indicates such a party would tie with Labor at 28 seats, with Likud well back in third place. That means a new Sharon party would probably need the help of dovish parties in order to cobble together a ruling coalition.

Sharon's departure would also probably set off a scramble to fill Likud's leadership vacuum. Benjamin Netanyahu, a Sharon rival, already had indicated plans to challenge Sharon as head of Likud. Others mentioned as possible contenders are Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

The reports of Sharon's decision drew fiery reactions from his foes in Likud.

"After receiving so much by the Likud, ... Sharon has betrayed this trust and taken off with it, going onto an extreme left path," Michael Ratzon, a Likud member of Knesset, told army radio. "It is a pity that such a great man will end his political career so small."

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times

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