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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sharon Creates New Party in Election Gamble

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quit his right-wing Likud party on Monday to lead a new centrist faction into an early election, taking a gamble likely to reshape Israeli politics for years to come.

Sharon's dramatic move, hours after he asked Israeli President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the parliament and order a new national ballot, could free him of far-right constraints in pursuing an end to conflict with the Palestinians.

But opinion polls said the success of a Sharon-led centrist party was uncertain, and the 77-year-old ex-general could face an uphill battle against more established factions in an election likely in March.

While confidants spoke of blazing a path toward peace following a Gaza pullout completed in September, Sharon gave no sign of softening his policy toward the Palestinians while seeking to tap into mainstream support for the withdrawal.

"We do not have any [new peace] plans. I do not see any further disengagement," a spokesman quoted Sharon as saying in reference to the idea of unilateral withdrawals in the occupied West Bank.

"My policy will be to proceed with the road map while at the same time fighting terrorism," the spokesman quoted Sharon as telling 11 Likud members who also jumped ship in the face of a party rebellion against him over the Gaza withdrawal. Many in Likud saw the Gaza pullout as a surrender to violence.

The U.S.-backed peace "road map" calls for an end to violence and charts confidence-building steps, including the disarming of Palestinian militants and an end to Jewish settlement expansion, toward creation of a Palestinian state.

Sharon has said peace negotiations stalled by five years of bloodshed cannot resume until the Palestinian Authority forces gunmen to lay down their arms and dismantles militant groups.

In a terse letter to Likud's acting chairman, Sharon wrote: "I am resigning from the party and forming a new one."

Katsav said he would immediately begin consultations with political leaders on moving up an election not constitutionally required until November 2006, and would disclose his decision on Sharon's request soon. Sharon made no comment after the meeting.

"I believe the election should be held as early as possible," Katsav said after meeting Sharon, who co-founded Likud three decades ago and was expected to launch the "National Responsibility" party at a news conference on Monday evening.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian Deputy Prime Minster Nabil Shaath said the Palestinian leadership was "watching carefully the unfolding political developments [in Israel] to see its consequences on the peace process."

Katsav said Sharon told him the government could not function in the current climate, in which far-right Likud legislators had blocked Cabinet appointments.

Katsav must first examine whether any legislator can muster a parliamentary majority and form a new government. But Israeli political analysts said chances were nil.

If Katsav dissolves parliament, Sharon would remain prime minister until a new one is elected.

Likud's acting chairman, Tzachi Hanegbi, said the party would choose a leader quickly. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who quit as finance minister over the Gaza pullout, is a top contender.

"The Likud will find a way to unite and regroup its forces," Hanegbi said at the faction meeting, where legislators sat stony-faced, confronting a new political reality.

"Sharon is the only credible leader with a national base right now, and that is a very powerful card Sharon has to play," said political analyst Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University.

"On the other hand, this is totally new territory and third parties have not done well in the past," he said.

Sharon has also been wooing veteran peacemaker and veteran coalition ally Shimon Peres, 82, whose Nov. 10 defeat as leader of the center-left Labor party by union leader Amir Peretz triggered the political upheaval.

Meir Ben-Shaul, a 63-year-old Jerusalem electrician who said he had voted for Likud in three elections, was unimpressed by the possibility of another Sharon-Peres partnership.

"I think Sharon's career is over. It's the same with Peres. They are two old people. They should go home and play with the children and grandchildren," Ben-Shaul said.