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Sharon Sources:'The Prime Minister Tends To Bolting Likud & Forming New Party'

Ariel Sharon Apparently Waiting For Last Word From Likud Opponents Before Deciding

Outgoing Labor Cabinet Ministers: 'Our Partnership In Sharon Cabinet Did Good Work'

PM Ariel Sharon

'Will he or won't he?' That is the question being debated non-stop by the Israeli media and in conversations between Israelis. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spent the Sabbath secluded with his top aides at his Negev ranch to discuss whether or not to quit the Likud and form a new centrist party. The latest leaks from Sharon quarters are that the Prime Minister 'tends' in favor of bolting the Likud in light of the internal opposition he faces. But is this genuine or perhaps a campaign of scare tactics being waged by the Prime Minister?

Although Sharon sources are signaling the Prime Minister has decided to quit the Likud, don't bet on it. More than likely it is part of a disinformation campaign to scare the Likud out of its wits. On Friday, two public opinion polls indicated the Likud will lose the upcoming early election, if Sharon quits and leads a new centrist party. The PM's office says more than 400 Likud officials have now telephoned to call on Sharon not to quit the party. Sharon is now engaged in probably the biggest political battle of his life and the old warhorse is a master of deception in outfoxing his rivals. The polls also showed that Sharon would lead the Likud to victory. It is a safe bet that Sharon is letting the Likud party come to terms with going into the political wilderness, if he leaves.

If this is the case, Sharon could be looking for a massive 'vote of confidence' in his leadership within the next several days before he announces his decision. At the same time, Sharon will not back down on his demand that he alone will formulate policy and expects the party including the 'rebels' to back him. His game plan could be to tell the Likud: 'Either you trust me to act in the best interests of Israel, or you don't!'

By pushing through the Gaza withdrawal against the Likud's will, Sharon has proved he is ready to face down his ruling party. He is determined to pursue his pragmatic approach to the Roadmap negotiations with the Palestinians; they disarm the terrorists and Israel compromises on a Palestinian state. The question is how can he, under the existing circumstances, pull it off? For Sharon to quit the Likud is a very risky. The polls show he and Labor's Peretz would end in a draw: it's possible that Peretz might even win fewer votes but become prime minister depending upon the voting results for the other parties. Would it be wise for Sharon to chance this? Does he relish the idea of becoming #2 in a Labor lead government? And even if Sharon did form the next government with his new party, would he not be at the mercy of Labor which will swing much farther to the left under Peretz? But on the other hand, Sharon and his new party would have no option of teaming up with the far right. He kicked them out of this government because they opposed the Gaza withdrawal.

President George W. Bush

Then there is Sharon's absent partner overseas U.S. President George W. Bush. Sharon's desire to preserve this 'beautiful friendship' should not be underestimated. It was one of the pillars on which Sharon built his Gaza withdrawal and the Prime Minister will not be able to maintain if he formed a future coalition government with the extreme right.Sharon also counts on Bush to support settlement blocs staying inside Israel. Sharon could also kiss good-bye to Bush if he buckles under pressure from the 'rebels' and the far right wing of his Likud party.

Therefore, in light of the uncertainties involved, Sharon is biding his time at present. He can be expected to see how the 'leaks' about quitting the Likud will impact on the Likud. Only then is he likely to announce his decision. There is no sure-fire guarantee, that even if his Likud critics do agree to give him the vote of confidence that he seeks, will it be kept after the election. However, the Israeli political map is changing. Hard-line Likudnik Sharon started the ball rolling with the Gaza evacuation and leaving the Israeli public in awe. Amir Peretz has now joined the act by taking Labor farther to the left. Without Sharon, the Likud will probably head for the far right. But Sharon proved by implementing the Gaza withdrawal that Israel's silent majority is squarely in the center. That is why there may be a better than even chance that Sharon may be able to cajole the Likud into following him from the far right to right of center.

Meanwhile, the Labor party convention meets on Sunday night and it is officially expected to approve the decision by new leader Amir Peretz to quit Sharon's and bring down the government. The vote on dissolving the current Knesset and going to an early election is now slated for Wednesday.

Footnote: At today's cabinet session, Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres traded compliment. Sharon even called on Peres saying: 'I will not let you stop giving of your admirable service to the country'. Labor and the Likud cabinet ministers also sounded like a mutual admiration society. It sounded like a promo for a future Likud-Labor coalition after the fury of the upcoming general election.

David Essing

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