JERUSALEM,(Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon”s new party chose the name "Kadima", or "forward", on Thursday as a pack of high-profile candidates geared up for a leadership race in the fractured Likud party he left behind.
Political commentators said the term "Kadima" would fit well with Sharon”s popular image in Israel as an adventurous ex-general who spurred his forces to advance on the battlefield in a military career spanning four decades.
Kadima (pronounced Ka-DEE-ma) was formally registered as a political party a day after President Moshe Katsav signed an order for an early general election on March 28.
"No more political bickering," Deputy Interior Minister Ruhama Avraham said in a campaign promise to reporters after she and other party officials presented Kadima”s list of 144 members for registration with state authorities.
Sharon, in a gamble that could reshape Israeli politics for years to come, quit Likud on Monday, saying he could not push for peace with the Palestinians while "wasting time" battling far-right rivals in the party he co-founded in 1973.
Opponents in Likud rebelled against Sharon over the Gaza pullout he championed and completed in September, a withdrawal they called a reward for Palestinian militants after more than five years of bloodshed.
Fourteen Likud legislators defected to Sharon”s new party.
In the Likud, a close leadership race was shaping up between former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sharon”s defence minister, Shaul Mofaz.
An Israel Radio opinion poll found Netanyahu would win 29 percent of the vote to 22 percent for Mofaz if Likud primaries were held now, leading to a run-off between them.
Other candidates include far-right legislator Uzi Landau, whose support was put at 14 percent, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who took 12 percent of the vote in the survey.
Later in the day, Likud”s Central Committee was expected to approve a Dec. 19 primary date already agreed by candidates, with a second round about a week later if necessary.
Netanyahu, citing his opposition to the Gaza pullout, quit as Sharon”s finance minister a week before Israel began removing 8,500 settlers from that occupied territory and 500 from four isolated enclaves in the West Bank.
That could give him an advantage among hardline Likud voters over Mofaz, who as defence chief played a key role in Sharon”s plan to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians through the unilateral withdrawals.
In the general election, Netanyahu, who led free-market reforms as finance minister, could be an easier target for new Labour Party chief Amir Peretz, likely to make the plight of Israel”s poor the focus of his campaign.
Mofaz pointedly noted in a television interview on Wednesday that unlike Netanyahu, educated in the United States and the son of a university professor, he has known deprivation and had to leave home at the age of 14 because of poverty in his family.
Opinion polls this week forecast Sharon”s party would take 30-33 seats in the 120-member parliament, enough to ensure him a third term as prime minister, compared with 25 or 26 for Labour and 12-15 for Likud.