TEL AVIV — Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday he had decided to defect from Likud to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new party, in the latest sign that the party that has led Israel for most of the past three decades is in danger of implosion.
After Mr. Sharon’s resignation from Likud earlier this month, Mr. Mofaz remained in the party and had been a top contender in next Monday’s primary election to choose a new leader.
But the former army chief of staff told reporters yesterday he has had a change of heart in the past few days, saying the party has fallen under the influence of politicians who are leading it to “the extreme right of the political map.”
Mr. Mofaz is the second Likud minister in a week to jump to Mr. Sharon’s Forward party. Likud loyalists painted the moves as motivated by opportunism, but others said the party has regressed into a cacophony of infighting since the prime minister’s resignation.
“This is a clear indication that there’s no glue holding the Likud together,” said Ethan Dor Shav, an analyst at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank.
“It was never about ideology; it was about not being a sucker to Yasser Arafat,” he said, referring to the late Palestinian leader. “It wasn’t their belief in keeping greater Israel. That wasn’t the glue. The real glue is that, ‘We are going to be strong against the foes on the other side, and that’s mainly the Palestinians.’”
The split in Likud opened over Mr. Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, which prompted a backlash from party hard-liners. Determined to strike a deal with the Palestinians in the West Bank, Mr. Sharon concluded he would never be able to do so as the head of Likud.
Polls show that if the election were held now, Likud would win about 12 seats in the 120-member parliament, compared with the 40 it now holds.
“They are in a desperate situation,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University.
“Right now, it looks as if they’re the third- or fourth-largest party, and their future participation in a coalition is not their decision, but the decision of Sharon. And whatever coalition there is, they will be a minor player.”
Many expect that the leadership primary on Sunday will give the party a bounce in the polls. But Mr. Dor Shav said the weakness of Likud is more fundamental than simply the absence of a leader.
More important, he said, is that the party is suffering from the absence of an external enemy such as the now-deceased Mr. Arafat.
“The major reason that the Likud has crashed and Sharon is succeeding is that these are the first elections without a bogeyman. That’s the biggest problem that the right faces,” he said.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of the Gaza disengagement, remains the front-runner to win the Likud primary. The Mofaz resignation leaves Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom as the main challenger to Mr. Netanyahu.