Political earthquake: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has decided to leave the Likud and form a new party ahead of the upcoming elections, Sharon associates said Sunday night.
Senior officials at the PM’s Office said the likelihood of Sharon quitting Likud is “99 percent,” and that he will make an announcement about his next moves Monday. Sources close to the prime minister told Ynet the decision was taken an hour or two before midnight.
’10-14 Likud members to join Sharon’
Following the reports on Sharon’s decision, the focus has now turned to other Likud members, as speculations abound regarding the possibility that some may also choose to break away from the ruling party and join the PM.
Sharon associates estimated 10-14 Likud ministers and Knesset members are set to join forces with the prime minister, including Finance Minister Ehud Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni – both have already said they will be leaving the Likud. Other notable Likud names include Ronnie Bar-On and Meir Sheetrit.
Meanwhile, countless other names of figures not currently part of the political establishment were also mentioned in recent weeks, including former Shin Bet Director Avi Dicther and former Likud Minister Dan Meridor. Outgoing Labor Party Chairman and Vice Premier Shimon Peres was also mentioned as a possible Sharon ally.
Sharon himself held a long series of meetings Sunday and left his office only around 10 p.m. after meeting with opposition leaders. As usual, the prime minister traveled south to his private residence, Sycamore Ranch, possibly for a final night of deliberations before his dramatic official announcement.
Speculations that the PM was indeed headed out of Likud grew around 10 p.m. Sunday. By 11 p.m., one of Sharon’s advisors estimated the chances were 70-30 that the prime minister will leave the ruling party.
2 speeches prepared
By evening time it appeared a final decision was taken, but Sharon’s advisors refused to confirm the reports. “We don’t know, we really don’t know,” they told eager reporters. However, once reports poured in regarding Sharon’s decision, his associates agreed to confirm that he is bolting the Likud and will make his announcement Monday.
In any event, the prime minister’s associates apparently prepared two speeches for him to correspond to any decision he makes.
According to the PM’s associates, Sharon will inform President Moshe Katsav Monday that he intends to dissolve the Knesset. In such case, the president will give another Knesset member 21 days to form a coalition, followed by a 14-day extension. General elections are set to be held three months later.
Another option available to Sharon is to vote in favor of a law to dissolve the Knesset and strike an agreement with all opposition factions regarding the elections date.
Meanwhile, the Likud faction is expected to convene at 2 p.m. Monday, but sources at the Prime Minister’s Office were unable to say whether Sharon will make his announcement there, or possibly earlier or later.
“The final decision will only come in the morning,” one of Sharon’s advisors said.
Labor to quit government
Newly elected Labor chairman Amir Peretz on Monday will officially inform Sharon of the Labor Party Central Committee decision to quit the coalition with Likud, a move that will bring about the exit of eight Labor ministers from the government.
Peretz collected resignation letters from Labor ministers soon after his surprise victory in the primaries over Vice Premier Shimon Peres and declared his intentions to pull his party out of the government.
Ilan Marciano contributed to the report