- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will quit his ruling Likud Party to run separately in national elections and will ask Israel’s president to dissolve parliament for a snap election, a source in Mr. Sharon’s office said yesterday.

If successful in what could be the biggest political gamble of his career, Mr. Sharon would return to power next year in a position to negotiate a historic deal with the Palestinians regarding the future of the West Bank.

The source in Mr. Sharon’s office confirmed a report on Israeli Army Radio that the 77-year-old Israeli leader had determined to break with the party he helped found in a dramatic bid to change the Israeli political landscape.

The report said Mr. Sharon, faced with the imminent pullout of the Labor Party from his governing coalition, would go to President Moshe Katsav today and ask him to call an early national election.

Mr. Sharon had turned to Labor only after being opposed by the right wing of his own party on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Before the next election, he would have had to face former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, standard bearer of the Likud hard-liners, in a party primary.

After marathon talks with aides and associates, the Israeli Army Radio said, Mr. Sharon had decided instead to form a new centrist grouping to compete in elections, which now are expected to be held in March.

One source told Israeli Army Radio that “a political earthquake is on the way.”

“Ariel Sharon has decided. … Ariel Sharon’s decision is dramatic, unequivocal, to leave the Likud,” the radio quoted the source as saying.

Mr. Sharon already has begun contacting political allies to join the new party, which he would lead, and 14 Likud lawmakers have agreed to join him, the Israeli Army Radio said. There was speculation that Shimon Peres, ousted as Labor Party leader in the Nov. 9 election, also would be invited to participate.

Mr. Sharon had been expected to announce his decision at a meeting today with members of the Likud parliament faction.

Confidants have said Mr. Sharon thinks he can prevail in the election and then pursue plans to end conflict with the Palestinians without having to battle Likud hard-liners who oppose giving up West Bank land.

Labor’s central committee, encouraged by fiery new leader Amir Peretz, voted earlier yesterday to leave the government it had joined to help Mr. Sharon carry out his withdrawal from the Gaza Strip against Likud opposition.

“Let the revolution begin,” said party official Eitan Cabel as he announced the result of the vote in a show of hands.

The day’s events were the expected first step in a week that will reshape Israeli politics, thrown into turmoil since union leader Mr. Peretz defeated veteran peacemaker Mr. Peres in a surprise leadership vote Nov. 9.

With Labor threatening to force an election, several commentators had predicted Mr. Sharon would quit Likud rather than battle Mr. Netanyahu for control of the party.

“He is liable to set in motion a political migration on a scale that the Israeli political map hasn’t witnessed since the state of Israel was founded,” wrote Shimon Shiffer in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

Some Likud ministers already have suggested they would be ready to stand in a Likud leadership contest against Mr. Netanyahu, who resigned as finance minister to oppose the Gaza pullout.

One of Mr. Sharon’s closest allies, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, already has met with Likud lawmakers to discuss forming the new party.

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