JERUSALEM (AP) – In a bold gamble, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday asked Israel”s president to dissolve parliament, pushing for a quick March election just hours after deciding to leave his hardline Likud Party and to form a new centrist party.
Sharon”s decision to leave Likud sent shock waves through Israel, redrawing the political map, finalizing his transformation from hardliner to moderate and boosting prospects of progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians.
His confidants say Sharon felt Likud hardliners, who tried to block this summer”s Gaza pullout, were imposing too many constraints and would prevent future peace moves.
Palestinian officials expressed hope Monday that the political upheaval in Israel would bring them closer to a final peace deal.
The dramatic events began with Sharon”s decision late Sunday, after a weekend of agonizing, to leave the party he helped found in 1973. On Monday morning, Sharon asked President Moshe Katsav to dissolve parliament, a step that would move the vote to the beginning of March, or eight months ahead of schedule. Katsav said he would weigh the request and decide quickly, after consulting with leaders of other parties.
At midday Monday, Sharon met at his office with 11 breakaway Likud legislators, expected to form the core of the new party, reportedly to be called "National Responsibility."
At the same time, more than 20 Likud lawmakers held their weekly meeting in parliament. The faction chief, Gideon Saar, announced that Sharon had sent a letter announcing his resignation from the party.The oversized brown leather chair, normally reserved for Sharon at the head of the oval table, was pushed to the side.
On Monday evening, Sharon was to announce the split formally in a nationally televised news conference. Sharon”s decision set the stage for a turbulent election campaign.
It would pit a smaller, more hawkish Likud, possibly led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, against Sharon and the new Labor Party leader, former union boss Amir Peretz. Sharon and Netanyahu are bitter political rivals.
Peretz, in turn, rejuvenated the ailing Labor Party with his appeal to Israel”s working class and Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern descent, voter groups that were once was largely out of Labor”s reach.
One poll Monday indicated that an alliance of Sharon”s new party with the moderate Labor and leftist parties would command a comfortable majority in the 120-member parliament.
It was seen as unlikely Sharon would seek a coalition with Likud after the election, since hardliners in the party spent months trying to halt the Gaza pullout, and came close at times to bringing down his government.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat compared the events to the eruption of a volcano. "I”ve never seen anything of this significance," he said. "I hope that when the dust settles, we will have a partner in Israel to go to the end game, toward the end of conflict, toward a final agreement."
The Palestinians also face political turmoil. The Islamic militant group Hamas is competing in Jan. 25 parliament elections and poses a strong challenges to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Sharon has said he would not hold talks with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas members.
Sharon had initially said Israel”s general election would be held in November as scheduled, but after Peretz took over control of Labor, an early poll became inevitable.
Peretz insisted on pulling Labor out of Sharon”s coalition, depriving he prime minister of a parliamentary majority.
Late Sunday, Labor voted to bolt the government. Katsav, the president, said Sharon told him Monday he could no longer run the government because he does not have a majority in parliament. "Of course, I think we need to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections as soon as possible," Katsav said. If Katsav approves the dissolution of parliament, a new election would have to be held within 90 days.
Among those expected to follow Sharon out of Likud are Vice Premier Ehud Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, two top academics and even ousted Labor leader Shimon Peres were mentioned as possibilities. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was still undecided Monday.
Those remaining in Likud said they would try to block Sharon”s moves. Saar, the Likud faction chief, said he would try to form a coalition of 61 legislators who oppose early elections. Under the law, Katsav has to consult with party leaders to see if any among them can form a new coalition.
"The prime minister and his people are exerting great pressure on Likud legislators to defect from the Likud," Saar told Israel Army Radio. "I call on Likud members … don”t give your hand to bringing down the Likud and to a process whose only purpose is a very deep withdrawal from the West Bank."
Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said the refusal of the Likud rebels to support Sharon”s future peace moves forced the prime minister to leave his political home. "I think that it is not an easy day. I had hoped that this wouldn”t have to happen, that we would all remain together," Ezra told Israel Radio. "I had hoped … that the members would say we are all falling into line, but that didn”t happen and Ariel Sharon decided what he decided and I am going with him."
Removed from the constraints of Likud, Sharon would be free to pursue the more moderate line he has espoused in recent years, part of a dramatic turnaround from a fervent supporter of Jewish settlements to the first Israeli leader to dismantle West Bank and Gaza communities.
Sharon”s departure turns Likud into a hard-line party that opinion polls show will be the main loser in an election. "I regret Sharon”s decision to leave and would have preferred that he continue his struggle within Likud," said Likud lawmaker Ehud Yatom, a leader of the internal rebellion against Sharon.