Sharon Leaves Likud to Form New Political Party

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In a major shake-up of Israeli politics, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announces he is leaving the hard-line Likud Party he helped found and forming his own political party to stand in parliamentary elections in March. He said Likud in its present state does not provide the leadership Israel needs.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today quit the ruling Likud Party, which he helped found more than three decades ago. He formed a new centrist party for upcoming Israeli elections. Israeli commentators said Sharon's move was a tsunami that could reshape Israeli politics. Sharon said he hoped to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would set Israel's permanent borders. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

At a news conference in Jerusalem to launch his new political party, Sharon said he left the Likud with many misgivings. But he said he did not believe the Likud could lead Israel to its national goals. More than a dozen sitting Cabinet ministers and members of Likud joined Sharon, including Finance Minister Ehud Olmert and Israel's justice minister as well as the recently retired head of the intelligence services.

Sharon and his allies had faced a storm of criticism within Likud over Sharon's decision to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Likud hard-liner Uzi Landau says he believes Sharon will now seek to do the same thing on the West Bank.

Mr. UZI LANDAU (Likud Party): The very meaning of Sharon's statement is that he's planning far-reaching concessions in the future. He knows that within Likud, that's a non-starter. We will do whatever possible to stop it.

GRADSTEIN: At today's news conference Sharon said some Jewish settlements in the West Bank would have to be removed as part of a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister ARIEL SHARON (Israel): (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: `We will work to set the permanent borders of the nation while insisting on the dismantling of terrorist groups,' Sharon said. But Sharon insisted he did not envision a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and said he supports the US-backed road map to peace, which calls for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a final settlement.

Opinion polls say that if the elections were held today, Sharon's new party would receive 28 seats in the Israeli parliament, and the Likud would drop dramatically from 40 seats to 20. The center-left Labor Party would also get about 20 seats.

Political analyst Dan Shiftan says a centrist party will appeal to many Israelis, who want a peace deal with the Palestinians but also want to ensure Israel's security. And they think that Sharon is the one to do this.

Mr. DAN SHIFTAN (Political Analyst): It is, in the final analysis, the kind of party that says, `You know what I'm going to do. You've seen me do it. I will continue to do it if you support it. If you think that the radicals are not worthy of your support, support me.' I think this will be the basic message.

GRADSTEIN: Palestinian officials, preparing for their own elections in January, said they are carefully watching the developments in Israel. Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi says that while the election in Israel may put the peace process on hold for a few months, it offers new opportunities in the long run.

Ms. HANAN ASHRAWI (Palestinian Legislative Council Member): Now the real political map will be drawn up. There will be a period of probably lack of external activity or movement on the peace process. And in preparation for elections, I think there will be a heightened rhetoric in order to win votes. But in a post-election era, there probably will be a re-emergence of a peace camp.

GRADSTEIN: Sharon today said his first priority is to win the Israeli election, which is expected to be held in March. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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