Growing Talk of PM-led 'Big-bang' Party Amid Likud Shift

Haaretz poll shows Netanyahu would easily beat Sharon in showdown for future leadership of Likud.

Sources close to Ariel Sharon Wednesday expressed growing support for the "big bang" - the possibility that the prime minister might split the Likud and lead a new political party following a Haaretz poll indicating that Benjamin Netanyahu would beat Sharon by a substantial margin in a race for the Likud Party leadership.

Army Radio reported that close associates of Sharon considered a new party "a likely possibility that promises victory." The associates said that in view of the recent poll, Sharon had little chance of beating Netanyahu in Likud internal elections

The Haaretz poll conducted on Monday found that in a three-way race between Sharon, Netanyahu and MK Uzi Landau, the veteran leader of the Likud anti-disengagement camp who formally announced his candidacy Tuesday, Netanyahu would win 35 percent of the vote, compared to 29 percent for Sharon and 17 percent for Landau.

Thus even in a three-way race, Netanyahu is not far from the 40 percent of Likud Party members needed to win in the first round, without a runoff.

Likud MK Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio that he saw a split-up as real possibility. "In my view, even Uzi Landau would retract his candidacy. No one has a chance in a face-off against Netanyahu for the Likud leadership."

But several Likud MKs are playing down the possibility of a division within the party which Sharon spearheaded in the early 1970s. MK Roni Bar-On, among Sharon's supporters in the party, ruled out the possibility of a "big bang".

"Stop arranging wills and testaments and divisions. Believe me, there will be no split in the Likud," Bar-On told Army Radio.

The "big bang" option has been pushed for some time by Minister Haim Ramon of the Labor Party. Ramon has long claimed that Sharon would never be reelected as head of the Likud, and therefore has only two options: abandoning politics altogether, or splitting the Likud and merging his supporters with Labor and Shinui to form a new "centrist" party.

Ramon believes that such a party could win a huge number of seats running against a shrunken, Netanyahu-led Likud that Sharon could easily paint as an extreme right-wing party.

Until now, most of the political world has laughed at Ramon's theory. But this poll, and others like it, may turn the "big bang" into a realistic option.

The poll included 526 people, who constitute a representative sample of the Likud's approximately 152,000 members. It was overseen by Professor Camille Fuchs of Tel Aviv University's statistics department. The margin of error was 4 percent.