PM’s top aides tell him: Quit Likud and form a new party

By Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondent Most of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s close advisers believe that he should leave the Likud and set up a new party that will participate in the upcoming elections to the Knesset. This emerges from conversations with Sharon’s aides and other figures in the political world. The advisers – those who take part in the “ranch forum” – say that Sharon has not yet decided how to act and that his current feeling is that he should remain in the Likud and compete for the leadership and the candidacy for the premiership. Those advisers who advocate leaving the Likud base their opinions on the polls that show Sharon trailing behind the other two contenders, among Likud voters, but enjoying great popularity among the public at large. In these circumstances, they say, it is unlikely that Sharon would be able to defeat his arch-rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the primaries. And even if he did, they continue, the party’s central committee would elect a list of Knesset hopefuls that would be so right-wing that it would make it difficult for Sharon to act. “Let’s assume that he could take the Likud,” one of them said, “but what would he have in hand?” One “Doomsday scenario” talks of Sharon coming out top of the leadership list and the Likud winning the elections, but Sharon not having sufficient party members who would suggest to the president that he is the best candidate to form a government. In such a case, he would have difficulty garnering the support of 61 Knesset members. Those in favor of him leaving the Likud, talk about setting up a new political body headed by Sharon, even while expressing reservations about the “big bang” plan being proffered by Minister Haim Ramon of Labor. They believe that Sharon does not need Ramon, nor does he need Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres or Shinui chair Yosef Lapid. They say that a joint list of this kind would merely detract from Sharon’s support. After the elections, however, Sharon could form a coalition with the two as well as with other lists, they believe. Those advisers who believe Sharon should remain in the Likud – and who are in the minority at present – explain that “third parties” have a history of failure in the Israeli political system. They recall the blistering defeat of the Center Party in 1999 and warn Sharon against being wooed by misleading surveys that speak of a victory for him if he heads a new party. Sharon told Haaretz last week: “I am a Likud person. I had the honor of initiating its establishment and I see no reason to desert the Likud.” Political analysts say that Sharon will have to make a decision one way or another before the winter session of the Knesset, at the end of October. During the coming weeks, he will be busy completing the disengagement plan and gathering the political fruits of the pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. Judging by his public statements in recent weeks, Sharon currently is sitting on the fence and has not yet decided whether to turn toward the right to win over Likud voters, or to take a moderate stance that would go over well with the general public. He sent mixed messages in his remarks on the eve of disengagement and his declarations about strengthening settlement blocs. The “ranch forum” of close aides and advisers meets every week at Sharon’s Tel Aviv bureau or at his official residence in Jerusalem. Originally the intimate forum would gather at Sycamore Ranch but later it grew and its 15 members today include MK Omri Sharon, political strategist Reuven Adler, political adviser Eyal Arad, Dov Weissglas, former bureau chief Uri Shani, political adviser Lior Horev, attorney Yoram Rabad, cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon, media adviser Assi Shariv, PMO director-general Ilan Cohen; adviser Lior Shilat and other invitees. Sharon’s second son, Gilad, who used to attend the sessions, no longer participates. BPI-info