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Labor tells Sharon 'bye

Coalition with Likud crumbles, forcing March elections

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon

JERUSALEM — Israel's dovish Labor Party voted Sunday to pull out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, and Sharon reportedly decided to quit his Likud Party to set up a new movement — beginning a campaign for elections expected in March.

Sharon is expected to take several prominent Likud Cabinet ministers with him to his new party, along with some from Labor — possibly including its ousted chairman Shimon Peres.

Advancing Israel's election from the original November 2006 date would likely sideline Mideast peace moves and counter whatever momentum was gained from Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank, completed in September.

Sharon's Gaza pullout, a dramatic about-face after decades of settlement building and expansion in the West Bank and Gaza fractured his party. Rebels in the Likud faction in parliament withheld support from his initiatives.

Today, Sharon is to ask Israel's president to disperse the parliament, setting in motion a process leading to elections in March, Army Radio reported.

Increasingly frustrated by the Likud rebellion, Sharon decided on the daring step of leaving the party he helped create in 1973, according to Likud activists. That would leave Likud as a bastion of hardline opponents to compromise with the Palestinians.

"I regret Sharon's decision to leave and would have preferred that he continue his struggle within Likud," said Ehud Yatom, a Likud member of parliament who was among the leaders of the internal rebellion against Sharon. Party leaders said they received the news from Sharon himself.

Polls in weekend Israeli newspapers showed that if Sharon remains in Likud, it would maintain much of its present strength, while Labor's newly elected leader Amir Peretz would lead his party to a healthy increase. Sharon at the head of a new party would scramble the electoral picture, with Likud as the main loser, according to the polls.

Peretz had pushed for Labor to leave Sharon's government.

Separately, Palestinians are concentrating on their own parliamentary election, set for Jan. 25, with the violent Islamic group Hamas running candidates for the first time and posing a significant challenge to the ruling Fatah Party of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Fatah primary elections began Saturday in the desert oasis of Jericho, and as expected, the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat won the nomination for the town's only seat, election officials said Sunday.

This month's surprise election of Peretz, a fiery union leader, as head of Labor accelerated the spiral toward early elections.

Labor joined Sharon's coalition government in January to buttress support for the Gaza pullout, but in one of his first moves, Peretz extracted letters of resignation from the eight Labor Cabinet ministers last week.

In a strident campaign speech, his first as party leader, Peretz told the convention that Sharon had partially corrected his mistake of building settlements in Gaza by pulling out, but he charged that in constructing them in the first place, Sharon had wasted "billions that could have been used to turn the education system around."

Blaming Sharon and his ex-finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu for increasing poverty and "humiliating" the poor, Peretz appealed to Israel's lower classes, traditionally Likud voters. "Come join the new social pact," he said, "you are not abandoning Likud. Likud has abandoned you," emphasizing social issues over Israel's traditional election deciders — security and the Palestinian issue.

In a brief reference to Mideast peacemaking, Peretz said he favors a united Jerusalem as Israel's capital and opposes permitting Palestinian refugees to return to Israel — an attempt to counter efforts to portray him as an extreme dove who would make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.

He also said that creation of a Palestinian state is in Israel's interest as well as the Palestinians'.