Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's efforts to lure prominent Likud members to his new National Responsibility party suffered a blow Monday evening when Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced in a press conference that he has decided to stay in the Likud and run for party leadership.
Sharon spoke to Mofaz on Monday morning and asked him to show "national responsibility" by joining his new party. Sharon told Mofaz that should he join, he would remain defense minister.
Meanwhile, Sharon on Monday night obtained his goal of attracting one-third of the Likud MKs to the National Responsibility party, entitling it to some of Likud's state funding.
Transport Minister Meir Sheetrit became the 14th Likud MK to announce he was crossing over to Sharon's party.
Earlier Monday, Sharon convened the first meeting of the National Responsibility party shortly after submitting his formal resignation from the Likud.
The meeting, which was closed to the media, was attended by 12 Likud members: Ministers Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, Avraham Hirschon and Gideon Ezra, as well as by Likud MKs Omri Sharon, Marina Solodkin, Roni Bar-On, Ruhama Avraham, Eli Aflalo and Ze'ev Boim.
"I am resigning from the party and forming a new one," the prime minister wrote in a letter to the Likud chairman, Israel Radio said, several hours after he asked President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the Knesset and call early elections.
The prime minister held a press conference on Monday evening, during which he made an official announcement on his decision to leave the Likud and set up a new party.
The elections are likely to be held in March.
Dissolving the Knesset serves Sharon's interest since it would prevent the Likud from putting off elections until a later date, by which time the new party's novelty would likely wear off.
A Sharon associate said that when the premier quits the Likud, Sharon's party could become the largest in the Knesset and predicted that not only Likud MKs would join it.
Numerous non-Likud personalities were also reportedly planning to stand with the prime minister, including former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, Ben Gurion University President Avishai Braverman, Professor Uriel Reichman and former Likud minister Dan Meridor, who has expressed a desire to return to politics.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who engaged Sunday in long talks with Sharon regarding future cooperation, will not leave the Labor Party to join Sharon's new party, Peres' aides said Monday.
Likud officials said the new party would be a "true centrist party, from every perspective: political, economic and social."
Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who is expected to hand in his letter of resignation Monday along with the other Labor cabinet members, said Sharon's decision presented Labor with "an historic opportunity to contend with not just Likud, but with another party," said
"We need to consider now who will bring the central economic and social salvation - [Benjamin] Netanyahu, Sharon or Labor," he added.
In anticipation of Sharon's announced resignation from the Likud, it is likely that he won't arrive at the Likud faction meeting convening Monday afternoon.