In Political Tsunami, Sharon Bolts Likud

Israeli politics usually make for fine drama — and 2006 is shaping up to be no exception to that rule.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quit the Likud Party this week to form a new centrist party to compete in early elections expected to take place in March.

Sharon’s new party, to be called the National Responsibility Party, is expected to capitalize on mainstream support for his decision to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip last August.

But polls suggest that Sharon, 77, may have difficulty beating his chief rival, Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz. History has not been kind to Israeli leaders who try to reinvent themselves through new political parties.

Sharon is a founding father of the Likud, whose grass-roots supporters are famously partisan. Still, with almost half of the Likud faction chafing at Sharon’s diplomatic course, and with party rival Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu criticizing him over the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon may have felt he had no choice.

“Sharon, as far as anyone call tell, decided long ago that he has no intention of drinking from the poisoned chalice prepared by those Likud colleagues who were meant to ride into the next Knesset on his coattails,” Yediot Achronot political correspondent Shimon Shiffer wrote.

The need for elections became clear Sunday after the Labor Party voted to pull out of Sharon’s coalition government. The vote by Labor’s Central Committee formalized the pledge by the party’s new leader, Amir Peretz, to leave the coalition and force elections.

Peretz, a veteran trade union chief, made clear in his speech that his campaign against Sharon would focus on economic issues.

“You stood by as Bibi battered your supporters mercilessly, forcing the poor to root around in the garbage,” Peretz said in his speech, referring to former Netanyahu, who oversaw a program of economic reform as Sharon’s finance minister. Peretz also accused Sharon of neglecting the needs of immigrants.

In forming his new political party, Sharon takes with him many of those Likudniks who agree with the party’s shift, in recent years, from championing Jewish settlement in all of “Greater Israel” toward embracing territorial concessions as a means of achieving peace — or at least quiet — with the Palestinians.

Eleven Likud ministers and legislators officially joined Sharon in National Responsibility, signing letters saying that they quit Likud. The 11 were Sharon, his son Omri Sharon, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra, Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson, Ruhama Avraham, Eli Aflalo, Ze’ev Boim and Marina Solodkin.

A 12th, Majalli Whbee, announced that he would quit Likud to join Sharon, but Whbee was in Morocco and couldn’t make his departure official.

Sharon reportedly invited Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to join the party, though Mofaz — who is considering running for Likud head — hasn’t decided whether to do so.

Ma’ariv reported that Sharon hopes to court a number of center-right politicians as well, including Dan Meridor, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter; Russian immigration expert Ya’acov Kedmi; and the president of Ben-Gurion University, Avishai Braverman, who has long called for a civic revolution in Israel.

Early elections are now expected to take place in February or March, rather than November 2006 as originally scheduled.

Despite earlier reports, current Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the longtime Labor leader who lost a recent primary to Peretz, was not expected to join Sharon’s new party, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu heads the list of expected contenders for Likud leadership, but he won’t lead his party’s ticket without a vigorous challenge.