Why Sharon Quit His Party

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Electoral Maneuvers: Sharon

Ariel Sharon left the Likud Party he helped found because it had become an obstacle to his plans for long-term peace and security for Israel, he said Monday. And he and his aides believe that the risks he's taking in launching a new centrist party will pay off by returning him to office at the head of an even more stable coalition.

Saying that the constant infighting in Likud had made his life "insufferable," Sharon on Monday became the first-ever sitting prime minister of Israel to quit his party while in office, in order to run against it in a reelection bid. (The holding of a new election was forced on Sharon by new Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, who withdrew his party from the governing coalition leaving Sharon without a majority.)

A poll published last Friday by Yedioth Ahronoth shows that a new party headed by Sharon would tie Labor on 28 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset, with Likud, if it is led by longtime Sharon rival Benjamin Netanyahu, trailing in third with just 18 seats. (All bets may be off, of course, in the face of one or two major terror attacks during the campaign.) And it may have been just such polls that pushed Sharon to jump, a decision he reached at 10pm on Sunday night, top Sharon adviser Reuven Adler told TIME. Adler noted that the preparations for the new party were so hurried Sharon's camp had not even carried out its own polling. "We relied mainly on the polls in the newspapers, which were actually the main raw material, plus an additional poll or two we managed to get our hands on," he said.

Adler said Sharon had needed to free himself from the Likud machine to be able to "conduct the affairs of state without being dependent on party political forums like the Likud Central Committee, which make it more difficult to run the government." The prime minister echoed the same themes: "The Likud in its current form cannot lead Israel any longer to its national targets," he said Monday. "Staying in the Likud would have meant wasting time on political struggles instead of serving the interests of the country."

Sharon said he would lead his new party, tentatively named National Responsibility, with two major objectives: "The first is to lay the foundations for a peace agreement in which we will set the permanent borders of the state... I'm talking about the Road Map. The disengagement has given us a historic opportunity and I don't intend to let anybody miss it."

The second, he said, was "to set our own house in order" and address urgent problems in the areas of "poverty, education gaps, crime and violence."

Labor's Peretz is not perturbed by Sharon's drive toward the political center, dismissing his new party initiative as "a temporary adventure." Senior Labor politician and Peretz confidante Yuli Tamir told TIME that her party's assessment is that it makes little difference to voters whether Sharon ran on a Likud ticket or independently. "The polls show our voters are indifferent whether Sharon is in or out of the Likud," she said. "We will get the same seats this way or that way. The advantage for us once Sharon runs in his own party is that it makes our fight with Sharon not about policy towards the Palestinians — on which we largely agree — but about economic policy. It means we can re-emphasize social policies in our campaign."

At least some of Sharon's former party colleagues were pleased to see the back of him. "The Likud is about to embark on a new path, a difficult path," said Uzi Landau, leader of the rebel faction that challenged Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan. "Now that Sharon is leaving us, the corruption is leaving too. The Likud can now return to its central issues: the land of Israel, clean politics, and a social sensitivity."

Sharon built an epic career as a military commander through prevailing by taking bold risks. The same will be true for him in politics, says advisor Adler. In the end, Sharon believes that he, rather than Labor or Likud, will lead the next government. And he has grounds to be confident, says Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, who expects Sharon to emerge from the coming election at the head of the largest faction in the Knesset, with 25-30 seats. "He will continue in office because there is no single Israeli figure who can compete with him in terms of experience or stature," Steinberg says. Or, as advisor Adler says, "No guts, no glory."

With reporting by Michal Levertov / Jerusalem