PM to Quit Likud, Form New Party

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to announce today that he will quit the Likud and establish a new party, senior Likud officials said last night.

However, they warned that until Sharon announces the decision, he can always retract it. Other political sources said Sharon told Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz yesterday that he plans to quit the Likud, but that it wasn't clear whether he would announce the decision today.

"We'll only know for sure in the morning," one Sharon associate said.

The Likud officials said the new party would be a "true centrist party, from every perspective: political, economic and social."

Sharon associates said he would consider going to President Moshe Katsav to ask for elections to be held as early as possible in an effort to prevent being toppled by parliamentary moves. The Sharon camp does not think no-confidence motions would pass with the 61-MK majority that would allow for the formation of an alternative government.

Also yesterday, political officials held talks to determine an agreed-upon date for general elections. The Likud negotiation team, headed by Gideon Sa'ar, and the Labor negotiation team, headed by Ephraim Sneh, appear to have agreed on March 28 as the election date.

If Sharon does announce his resignation from the Likud today, it is likely that he won't arrive at the Likud faction meeting convening this afternoon. A Sharon associate said that if the premier does quit the Likud, Sharon's party could become the largest one in the Knesset and predicted that Likud MKs will not be the only MKs to join it.

Likud officials said Sharon made his final decision to leave the Likud over the weekend, at his Negev ranch, after consulting with his sons and a few close associates, including the former head of his bureau, Uri Shani, and publicist Reuven Adler.

Sharon is aware of the difficulties he faces in founding a new party and hesitated before deciding to do so.

A Sharon associate said the prime minister appeared tense the night before he made his decision, because "this is a dramatic and fateful decision fraught with danger. Sharon has already been prime minister. He wants to lead processes, and he understands that they won't let him [do that] in the Likud, but he is torn because this is a sensitive decision from his perspective - he established the Likud."

Sharon spent yesterday speaking with his close advisers and held several political meetings. He met with Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who is resigning from the government today, along with the other Labor ministers, in compliance with yesterday's Labor Central Committee decision. Sharon also met with Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, who said yesterday at a conference at Ben-Gurion University that if Sharon leaves the Likud, he will join him in forming a new party.

MK Benjamin Netanyahu asked Ministers Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit and Gideon Ezra yesterday to remain in the Likud and support its unity. The names of the three ministers had been raised as Likud officials planning to leave the Likud.

Over the last few weeks, Sharon has been examining how to found a party and how to get ready for elections quickly, without an established organization or local branches.

Sharon associates said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni would join the prime minister's new party, but Mofaz would remain in the Likud. Other ministers said they would remain in the Likud for now, but would consider leaving the party and joining Sharon if Uzi Landau, the leader of the anti-disengagement Likud "rebels," wins the party chairmanship.