Polls say Sharon could return as prime minister

Polls published today, a day after Ariel Sharon broke away from his hardline Likud party, showed him mustering enough support to return to the prime minister’s seat at the head of a moderate coalition.

Sharon’s allies in the new centrist party he formed made it clear today that their goal was a peace deal with the Palestinians, culminating in a Palestinian state.

“The process clearly is a process that leads in the direction of two states,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio.

“We will lead in the direction of two states.”

Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, a top Sharon ally, said the prime minister wants to draw Israel’s final borders in talks with the Palestinians.

The breakaway from Likud came out of “the desire to define the permanent borders of Israel in the framework of an agreement that is based on the recipe of the road map,” Olmert told Army Radio, referring to the internationally backed peace plan.

Yesterday, Sharon officially parted ways with the party he helped create more than three decades ago, saying his recent Gaza Strip pullout created historic opportunities that should not be squandered. The break from Likud cemented his transformation from the hawkish patron of Israel’s settler movement to a moderate peacemaker reconciled to the inevitability of a Palestinian state.

His new party, as yet unnamed, will participate in early elections that are shaping up to be held on March 28.

Sharon’s twin messages of territorial concessions toward the Palestinians and a hard line against Palestinian militants have made him Israel’s most popular politician. Surveys published today showed his break-away party outstripping all others, and Sharon heading to a third term as premier.

A Teleseker poll published in the Maariv newspaper showed Sharon’s party dominating the 120-member Knesset with 30 seats. The Labour Party, led by union boss Amir Peretz, would receive 26 seats and Likud would receive 15 seats if former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replaces Sharon as party head, as expected. The poll questioned 532 people and had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

A poll in the Yediot Ahronot daily said Sharon’s party would win 33 seats, Labour 26 and a Netanyahu-led Likud, 12. The survey questioned 702 people and had a margin of error of about 3.8 percentage points.

Sharon was not seen likely to seek a coalition with Likud if his party were to win the most seats in parliament and is tapped to put together Israel’s next government.

“Otherwise he would have stayed in the Likud Party and agreed to the opposition of the so-called rebels,” said Avraham Brichta, a political scientist at the University of Haifa.

Labour voted on Sunday to pull out of Sharon’s government, which it joined last year to ensure implementation of the Gaza pullout. But Peretz – a political dove who want to increase social spending – has said he would consider rejoining a coalition with Sharon under the right conditions.

Sharon set dramatic events in motion late on Sunday with his decision to leave the party he co-founded in 1973. His decision to scale back Likud’s dream of keeping all of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza by pulling out of Gaza this summer ignited internal rebellion within the party. Rebels failed to block the withdrawal, but seeking revenge for Sharon’s perceived treachery, fought him in parliament at every opportunity.

Yesterday, Sharon asked President Moshe Katsav to dissolve parliament and move elections to early March from their scheduled November date.

Katsav has yet to say whether he will disband the legislature by decree or let parliament dissolve itself and set its own election date. But spokeswoman Hagit Cohen said the president has been told by faction leaders they are agreeable to holding the vote March 28.

The legislature, meanwhile, voted yesterday to disband, but needs to vote three more times to bring about early elections. Further votes were expected over the next few days.

Parliamentary officials said today the bill would go to the assembly’s Law committee during the afternoon, have another reading during the evening and probably be passed into law tomorrow.

The desire to proceed with peacemaking without the constraints of Likud hardliners was the main reason for forming the new party, Livni said.

“The decision to leave the (Likud) party, at least in my consideration, was because its first word in its platform is no,” she told Army Radio. “No to a Palestinian state.”

In a nationally televised news conference yesterday where he announced his political plans, Sharon said Israel’s recent unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip created a historic opportunity to get back on the path to peace.

“I will not allow anyone to squander it,” he said.

Israeli Finance Minister Ehud Olmert met today with his Palestinian counterpart, Salam Fayyad. “We are making all-out efforts to create momentum, to create better understanding, to persuade them (the Palestinians) to persuade them to fight terror,” Olmert told Army Radio.

Although Sharon has now thrown off the constraints of the Likud hawks, peacemaking in the short term will be put on hold by Israel’s elections and January 25 balloting for the Palestinian parliament.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that some issues may be sidelined during the election period, but that he hopes “that these elections will go smoothly and we can get back to pressing the parties on the peace process.”

Netanyahu, who hasn’t spoken publicly in months, lashed out at Sharon today, calling him a dictator and accusing him of abandoning Likud’s path. Sharon, he said, is a leader who pursued a “one-man-rule, who apparently doesn’t recognise democracy, and is setting up a party of puppets.

“What does it matter whether the dictator has this type of smile, or that type of sense of humour?” he asked.

“It all leads to tyranny.”

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