Sharon to Decide This Weekend on Quitting the Likud

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will decide this weekend on whether to stay in the Likud or form a new party, a close associate of Sharon's said yesterday.

At a meeting with his closest advisers last night, the majority recommended that he quit the Likud. However, several of his associates said, Sharon gave no hint as to whether or not he intended to follow this advice. Sharon currently appears to be undecided, they said, and he is carefully weighing the advantages and disadvantages of both options.

Moreover, said a person who was present at the meeting, none of the three people whose advice Sharon trusts most - his sons, Omri and Gilad, and public relations expert Reuven Adler - voiced their views on the matter last night.

Sharon's need to decide quickly stems from the fact that new elections are only a few months away: At a meeting between Sharon and Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz yesterday, the two decided that the vote would take place sometime between the end of February and the end of March.

But while Sharon intends to decide by Saturday night, he might not announce his decision until he meets with the Likud Knesset faction on Monday, the close associate said.

Sharon's main concern about staying in the Likud, according to his associates, is the composition of the party's Knesset slate, which is virtually certain to contain many MKs who disagree with his diplomatic program and will therefore try to thwart it.

"The last few weeks have proved that even with only six rebels, it is hard to function - for instance, if they decide to vote against ministerial appointments," said one. "If the prime minister is going to have trouble functioning in the next Knesset, what's the point of staying [in the Likud]?"

In contrast, said his associates, Sharon is not particularly worried about a primary challenge from Benjamin Netanyahu, as he is convinced that he can win.

Until the Likud faction meeting two days ago, most Likud members, including Sharon's close associates, were predicting that he would opt to stick with the party, thanks in part to Labor's surprise choice of Peretz as its prime ministerial candidate. Peretz, because he appeals to two traditional Likud constituencies - the working class and mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) - is perceived as a threat by the Likud, and was therefore thought likely to inspire the party to unite behind Sharon.

However, Sharon's associates said, Wednesday's faction meeting demonstrated that the rebels, who opposed the disengagement plan, still constitute an opposition to Sharon, and that increases the likelihood of him leaving the party.

Shinui Chairman Yosef Lapid, who met with Sharon yesterday to give his views on when new elections should be held, also said that his impression from this meeting was that Sharon planned to quit the Likud.

On Sunday, Sharon will meet with MKs from several other parties, with the goal of reaching agreement on a date for new elections by Monday, thereby enabling the Knesset to vote to dissolve itself. Lapid told Sharon that any date after March 1 would be fine by him. Most commentators, however, expect that a date in mid-March will ultimately be chosen.