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Sharon to Run With New Party; Election...s Outcome Uncertain

By Steven Erlanger 
and Greg Myre


Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, set off what could be a major realignment in Israeli politics on Monday by quitting the Likud Party, which he helped found. President Moshe Katsav said early elections would probably be held in March, and Parliament took a preliminary vote to disband itself .

While Sharon is an early favorite to win the most seats in an election, Israeli analysts and politicians were anticipating a bruising campaign. By trying to run in the center with a new party, to be called National Responsibility, Sharon is likely to be a target for criticism from the left, the center and the right wing that he has abandoned.

Some 14 Likud members of Parliament have said they will join him, and he now sets out to persuade a range of centrists and Labor Party moderates to come aboard as well. He held an initial meeting of the party on Monday afternoon.

“Likud in its present form is unable to lead Israel toward its national goals,” Sharon said Monday evening in a nationally televised news conference. He said he is setting up what he called “a new national, liberal movement” in order “to lay the foundation for a peace agreement in which we will determine the permanent borders of the state, while insisting that terrorist organizations are dismantled.”

He insisted, however, that there would be no more unilateral withdrawals of Israeli settlements from Palestinian territories. He did not, however, rule out withdrawals coordinated or negotiated with the Palestinians under the international peace plan known as the road map.

By his decision to have Israel withdraw unilaterally from Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank last summer, Sharon effectively turned his back on Likud, and he failed to convince an important part of the party of the wisdom of his views.

Now, Sharon has the chance to remake Israeli politics but political analysts were not sure the new party would outlast him.

Gerald Steinberg, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, called Sharon’s decision “a move toward pragmatism.”

“Both sides are moving away from ideology,” he said. “And pragmatism is Sharon’s strong suit. Sharon is the pole to which all the other parties will look to form a new government.”