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Sharon Creates a Centrist Party

Times Staff Writer

Declaring that hard-liners in his conservative Likud Party had made life “unbearable,” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quit the group Monday and formed a new centrist party that he vowed would seek progress toward peace with the Palestinians.

“Staying in the Likud means wasting time in political battles instead of in actions for the good of the country,” a somber, tired-looking Sharon said at a news conference. “We are embarking on a new path, one which will provide Israel with genuine hope for stability, national responsibility, personal security, stable governance, economic prosperity, quiet and peace.”

The prime minister asked the president to dissolve parliament, which would probably bring elections in March.

Sharon has been beset by hard-line Likud members who have sought to punish him for leading Israel’s summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a remote corner of the West Bank. After that faction recently blocked two of his Cabinet nominees, Sharon said he concluded he was unable to rule effectively as head of Likud, which he helped establish in the 1970s.

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Analysts said that if Sharon could win a third straight term as prime minister at the head of a new party, he would gain greater leeway to consider further withdrawals from the West Bank unilaterally or as part of an agreement with the Palestinians.

Sharon said his new party would make security its centerpiece, with continued insistence that Palestinians rein in militant groups. He said his peace blueprint would remain the U.S.-backed diplomatic initiative known as the road map, and said he had no plans for additional unilateral West Bank pullouts.

“I don’t plan on committing [to] any other plan,” he said. “There is no other withdrawal plan.”

Though Sharon offered no specific proposal Monday for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, he has made it clear that he wants to be involved in defining Israel’s future boundaries. He said he planned to strengthen Israel’s hold on major blocks of Jewish settlements, yet warned that not all the others would survive an eventual peace deal.

Palestinian leaders, who have scheduled parliamentary elections for January, voiced hope that Sharon’s move might lead to a breakthrough toward a peace agreement. They have complained that the Gaza pullout did not lead to broader peace talks.

“This is the most significant thing since the Israeli occupation started,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “I hope that when the dust settles, we have a partner for pursuing the endgame.... I hope we will witness a genuine development after these two elections.”

But Israeli experts expressed caution.

“Sharon’s leaving does not mean ... that a peace process with the Palestinians is closer. It means we’re going to see Sharon’s new party advocating some sort of additional disengagement from the West Bank,” analyst Yossi Alpher said.

Impromptu parties haven’t done well with voters before, and Alpher said Sharon’s new entity wasn’t likely to last beyond one term. “Sharon at the age of 77 is a man who wants to finish the job he started.”

Sharon’s move in effect creates three main blocs representing the right, center and left, with Sharon’s party in the middle. It could scramble voting patterns in a system long dominated by two parties, Likud and Labor.

Earlier Monday, Sharon met with about a dozen Likud members of parliament and ministers who are joining his new party, which Israeli media said was for now being called National Responsibility. Among those who have signed on are Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra.

The prime minister hopes to woo 14 or more Likud members of parliament, as well as academics, figures from Labor, and security officials such as Avi Dichter, former director of the Shin Bet domestic security agency.

One Labor parliament member, Haim Ramon, already reportedly has indicated he will defect to Sharon’s party. Sharon appeared to downplay the possibility that Shimon Peres, who was unseated two weeks ago as head of Labor, would join.

Sharon’s exit leaves Likud, Israel’s dominant political force for nearly 30 years, facing what could be an uneasy future without the country’s most popular politician. Previous polls showed Likud running third behind a hypothetical new entity led by Sharon and Labor, whose fiery new leader, Amir Peretz, has breathed fresh life into the party.

A poll of registered Likud members published Monday in the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot showed as many as one in four would abandon the party and follow Sharon. But the polls suggest that even if he won, Sharon would have to form a coalition with other parties to achieve a governing majority.

Sharon’s exit could boost Likud hard-liners who have sought to preserve the party’s traditional right-wing tilt. Some have proposed creating a rightist bloc that would consist of Likud and religious parties that have backed the settler movement.

“With this development, the Likud seems to be moving in the direction of losing the center part of its internal alignment,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It will survive, but it is likely to lose the status as the largest party.”

Likud members are to meet Thursday to begin planning for the elections. The party could be in for a crowded leadership battle, with Benjamin Netanyahu currently favored. But he could face tough competition from Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz or Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Uzi Landau, a Knesset member who played a lead role in the fight against the Gaza pullout, had announced his intention to run before Sharon’s decision.

Sharon began a day of dizzying drama by asking President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the parliament, or Knesset. That would trigger a process during which some Knesset members could try to assemble an alternative government within 21 days. If none was able, elections would follow in 90 days -- early March.

But later, the Knesset voted in a preliminary action to dissolve itself. Katsav said elections should be held by March 28.

By having the president dissolve parliament, Sharon would retain considerable authority in naming interim Cabinet ministers and deciding the date for elections. But by dissolving itself -- an action that requires further votes -- the Knesset could put off elections for weeks.

Sharon will remain premier through elections, originally due next November.


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