- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

JERUSALEM — Advisers to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, convinced he will not be able to fend off a leadership challenge from Benjamin Netanyahu, are urging him to dump his Likud Party and set up a new party before Likud dumps him.

Most of the 15 advisers and aides with whom Mr. Sharon meets weekly to discuss political matters have concluded that Mr. Sharon cannot overcome the anger over his decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip before party primaries in the next few months, according to published reports last week.

A poll published Tuesday showed Mr. Netanyahu favored by 47 percent of voters within the conservative Likud Party, compared with 30 percent for Mr. Sharon.

Mr. Sharon was easily the most popular figure in the party until he alienated his hard-line supporters with his plan to withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements. Mr. Netanyahu quit as finance minister two weeks ago to protest the plan and is expected to announce his candidacy for the Likud leadership next week.

However, Mr. Sharon enjoys far greater support among the general public than does Mr. Netanyahu. A poll published Thursday by the newspaper Ma’ariv shows that a new party led by Mr. Sharon would win 34 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, compared with 20 seats for a Likud Party led by Mr. Netanyahu.

The notion of Mr. Sharon splitting from Likud and forming a new center-left party is referred to as the “little bang” scenario to distinguish it from the “big bang” scenario proposed last year by a senior Labor Party member, Haim Ramon.

Convinced that Mr. Sharon’s right-wing background and tough character make him best suited to push through further West Bank withdrawals, Mr. Ramon suggested that Mr. Sharon form a new party that would include the existing Labor Party and the centrist Shinui Party.

The Ma’ariv poll showed that such a party would win 54 Knesset seats and easily form a coalition government by inviting in a left-wing party. The Likud today has 40 Knesset seats.

Mr. Sharon has so far insisted that he has no intention of leaving the Likud, a party which he himself cobbled together from smaller parties in 1973 to serve as a platform for Menahem Begin, who was elected prime minister four years later.

“I am a Likud person,” Mr. Sharon said in an interview this month. “I see no reason to desert it.”

Apart from sentiment, Mr. Sharon is well aware of the sad history of breakaway parties in Israel, all of which failed to win broad support. Even Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, ended up with only a handful of Knesset seats when he split from his own Labor Party to found the Rafi party in the 1960s.

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