JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – An opponent of Israel”s Gaza withdrawal who took over as Likud leader after Ariel Sharon quit the party joined the prime minister”s new Kadima faction on Wednesday in a surprise move ahead of the March election.
Israeli political commentators said Tzachi Hanegbi”s defection dealt another blow to the Likud, already trailing Kadima and the centre-left Labour Party in opinion polls.
Hanegbi, long a pillar of Likud”s right wing, could help Sharon appease rightists who may have been alienated by the prime minister”s recruitment of former Labour chief Shimon Peres, a key backer of the Gaza pullout completed in September.
Hanegbi voted against the withdrawal in the cabinet but opposed as counter-productive a far-right rebellion in the Likud that Sharon cited as a main reason for bolting the party last month and forming Kadima in the run-up to the March 28 ballot.
Hanegbi has been under suspicion since last year that he made illegal political appointments as environment minister from 2001 to 2004. He has denied any wrongdoing.
"For the good of the country, (Israel) needs the continued leadership of Ariel Sharon," Hanegbi said at a news conference, where he announced he was joining Kadima and supporting its pledge to retain Israel”s "Jewish and democratic character". The phrase is political shorthand for territorial compromise under which the Palestinians would get a state of their own while Israel, by giving up some occupied land where several million Arabs live, would maintain its Jewish majority.
"I believe that when hard decisions are needed…(Sharon) is the man I can trust," Hanegbi said.
Yitzhak Herzog, a Labour legislator and former cabinet minister, predicted Hanegbi would ultimately "restrict Sharon and torpedo any chance of advancing in the peace process".
Sharon has reaffirmed his commitment to a U.S.-backed peace "road map" that charts reciprocal steps leading to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. But he has said there could be no progress towards peace until the Palestinian Authority fulfilled the road map”s call to dismantle militant groups behind anti-Israeli violence. The plan also demands Israel halt Jewish settlement expansion.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who declared a ceasefire along with Sharon in February and is preparing for a parliamentary poll on Jan. 25, has said confronting militants would spark civil war. He wants to draw them into politics.
An opinion poll published on Wednesday, two days after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed five Israelis outside a shopping mall, showed Kadima maintaining its lead over Labour and Likud, indicating Sharon was on course to win a third term.
The Teleseker survey in Maariv newspaper gave Kadima 39 seats in the 120-member parliament, unchanged from a poll last week.
Labour was forecast to win 24 seats, down from 26 a week earlier. Likud which took 40 seats in the last election, in 2003, garnered 13 seats in the poll, up from 11 last week.