JERUSALEM – Sending shock waves through the political arena here, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said today he will leave the ruling Likud Party he helped found to start his own centrist party.

The announcement came just hours after Sharon asked the president to dissolve parliament, prompting new elections.

The prime minister’s decision is seen by several senior dovish Israeli lawmakers and Palestinian leaders as Israel’s “best chance” at giving the West Bank and the eastern sections of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
“I am resigning from the party and forming a new one,” Sharon wrote in a letter to his current Likud Party after asking Israeli President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the Knesset and call for a quick March election.

The move comes after Sharon’s “national unity coalition” with the Labor Party fell apart following the election last week of a new Labor chairman, Amir Peretz, who decided to remove the party from the current government. The decision left Sharon with less than a majority of parliament’s 120 seats.

According to Israeli law, if the prime minister fails to maintain at least 61 seats in his ruling coalition, new elections must be held within 90 days.

The exact date of the elections will be determined in a battle later today in the Knesset that already is heating up. Sharon had wanted Katsav to initiate the dissolution of the parliament, which would set new elections for March 6 and enable the prime minister to reshuffle his cabinet and appoint interim ministers.

But in a move that surprised many political watchers here, the Likud chairman announced today he has gathered enough votes for the Knesset to dissolve itself, which would most likely delay elections until the end of March and would prevent Sharon from appointing any new ministers as a reward for joining his soon-to-be-formed party.

The date of new elections could determine the fate of Sharon’s political bid. New Israeli parties tend to start strong in the polls but traditionally begin to weaken after a few weeks.

Sources close to Sharon tell WND the prime minister sent urgent messages calling for Katsav to dissolve the parliament before the Knesset could vote today on dissolving itself.

Sharon has named his new party “National Responsibility.” He held its first official meeting with prospective members in his office today.

Ousted Labor leader and Vice Premier Shimon Peres said he will not leave his party to join with Sharon, but sources close to Peres told WND his decision is not final and that intense negotiations were under way to lure him into Sharon’s fold.

“Peres knows his only hope at any future political career lies with Sharon,” said a Peres aid.

Sharon’s resignation now leaves top Likud leaders Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, and Uzi Landau, a former cabinet minister, to contend with each other to head the party and run against Sharon in upcoming elections.

Landau told WND, “Sharon’s departure presents Likud with the opportunity to return to its true principals and not those imposed by the prime minister in total opposition to everything Likud stands for.”

Likud traditionally opposes unilateral concessions to the Palestinians. Landau and Netanyahu resigned their posts in protest of Sharon’s withdrawal in August from the Gaza Strip.

George Birnbaum, a political strategist and former Netanyahu chief of staff, predicted Netanyahu will head the Likud in new elections.

“With Sharon leaving the Likud, Bibi (Netanyahu) does not have any real opposition within the party that could be considered a ‘dangerous’ challenge,” Birnbaum told WND. “While contenders such Landau and (Likud member) Moshe Feiglin will give Bibi a bit of a race, but at the end of the day, Likud members see only Bibi as being able to deal with issues such as economic policy, foreign policy and the Palestinians.”

Some polls within Likud have Landau beating Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, dovish Israeli politicians and some Palestinian leaders are lauding Sharon’s new party as a “real opportunity” for the “peace camp” and for Israel to give the West Bank and sections of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

Yossi Beilin, an extreme leftist lawmaker and an architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords, called Sharon’s resignation and the formation of a new party “a big victory for supporters of sharing the land. This is a real opportunity for a coalition headed by the peace camp, including former Likud members who understood that for 38 years they have deceived the nation and themselves.”

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Beilin said he is hopeful Sharon would be reelected and will sign a peace deal with the Palestinians that includes vacating the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat told WND the Palestinian Authority “is monitoring the political process in Israel very closely. We believe what is happening is very significant. We hope once a new election takes place, whoever is in power will be willing to go to final status negotiations and make peace with the Palestinians.”

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