JERUSALEM (AP) – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday plucked another leader from the Likud Party”s dwindling ranks, persuading the once-reluctant Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to join his new centrist party.
The addition of Mofaz brought another high-powered public figure to Sharon”s Kadima Party in March 28 elections, and dealt another embarrassing blow to the reeling Likud Party.
Mofaz, who had earlier rebuffed Sharon”s offer to join Kadima in order to seek the chairmanship of the hardline Likud, told a news conference that he was leaving Likud because "extremists" had hijacked the party. He said Sharon has agreed, if re-elected, to keep him on as defense minister.
"The Likud party…is growing away from me, and to my sorrow, is moving in the direction of what we call the right-wing extremists of the political map," Mofaz said.
Mofaz, a former military chief of staff, reconsidered his political allegiance after polls showed him trailing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in the Likud leadership race, scheduled for Dec. 19. He said his decision was not affected by the polls.
Sharon has steadily gained ground in opinion polls since quitting Likud in November and ridding himself of party hard-liners bent on blocking further territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
Recent surveys show him capturing 39 parliamentary seats, short of a majority in the 120-seat legislature but enough to form a governing coalition supporting his goal of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.
Mofaz”s defection was the latest blow to Likud, which has imploded since Sharon”s departure. The party”s acting chairman, Tzachi Hanegbi, bolted on Wednesday, saying Sharon was the best person to lead the country to peace with the Palestinians.
The most optimistic polls show Likud, which had dominated Israeli politics for most of the last three decades, winning just 13 seats in the March election, down from 40 in the last vote.
The departure of Mofaz, a political moderate, strengthens the hardline elements in the Likud camp. Netanyahu, who quit Sharon”s government because of his opposition to Israel”s Gaza Strip withdrawal, is the current front-runner in the Likud leadership contest.
Sharon told aides on Sunday that Mofaz called him a day earlier to tell him he intended to leave the Likud.
"I suggested he join the Kadima movement and continue serving as defense minister in the next government. He answered affirmatively, and I”m glad," one of the meeting participants quoted Sharon as saying.
In addition to wooing most of the Likud leadership away, Sharon has also won over some leading officials in the dovish Labor Party, most prominently Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres.
Sharon has said that if he is re-elected, he hopes to restart peace talks based on the "road map," an internationally backed peace plan that aims to create a Palestinian state.
Labor leader Amir Peretz, who is losing altitude in the polls, was quoted Sunday as saying that the road map, which calls for interim onfidence-building measures by both sides, is a "waste of time" and that he would favor proceeding straight to final talks to resolve the conflict once and for all. He reportedly made the comments in a meeting with European diplomats last Thursday.
"I will work to reach a final status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians as soon as possible," Peretz told the Yediot Ahronot daily. "The final status arrangement should be accelerated, instead of the road map."