JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon”s new centrist party has taken a dip for the first time, though he remains the clear frontrunner for a March general election, a poll showed on Thursday.
A survey in the Haaretz newspaper gave Sharon”s Kadima party 35 seats in the 120-member parliament, after previous polls showed a steady climb to about 40 a week ago.
Sharon started Kadima last month after quitting the rightist Likud party to run separately in the March 28 election, seeking to capitalise on wide public support for a Gaza withdrawal.
The poll showed the centre-left Labour party in second place but closing the gap and picking up at least two of Sharon”s lost seats, with 24 seats, up from 22 in a previous survey.
Some Israelis may have drifted back from Sharon”s party to Labour after two leading hawks, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and Tzahi Hanegbi, a former police minister, joined ranks with Sharon in the past week, the newspaper said.
The Likud came in third in the poll with 12 seats. But political commentators have said the party could get a boost after Monday”s leadership primary. Surveys show former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to defeat his main rival, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Netanyahu quit Sharon”s cabinet in August in protest against Israel”s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip completed in September, which Israeli rightists have denounced as a surrender to Palestinian violence.