Sharon near decision on whether to quit Likud

Israel heads into a week of turbulent politics as it awaits Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision whether to bolt his hardline Likud Party and run in early elections on a new centrist list.

A new party would allow Sharon, Israel's most popular politician, to sidestep Likud rebels who opposed his Gaza Strip withdrawal and object to further concessions to Palestinians. It could also better Sharon's political maneuverability by opening new options for coalition partners.

"All signs suggest he will quit," political commentator Hanan Crystal said Saturday.

Earlier in the day, Israel Radio reported that Sharon's aides have completed technical preparations for the possible registration of a new party. The prime minister was expected to make his decision this weekend, and possibly announce his plans on Monday, at a weekly meeting of Likud legislators, the report said.

Polls show a new Sharon-led party could marshal enough electoral strength to put together a new government.

The pressure on &to=' target=_blank>Sharon to declare his intentions turned intense last week after union leader Amir Peretz took control of the Labor Party in an unexpected victory against party stalwart Shimon Peres, and immediately demanded moving up the scheduled November 2006 elections.

Labor joined Sharon's coalition last year to assure passage of the &to=' target=_blank>Gaza pullout. With the evacuation over and Labor stripped of its peace platform by Sharon's unilateral pullout, Peretz wants to shift Israel's political debate from the conflict with the Palestinians to social spending and workers' rights.

Sharon, who had hoped to keep his coalition intact until November, bowed on Thursday to the twin pressure from Likud rebels and from Peretz, and agreed to call a vote by the end of March.

Now he has to decide on what list to run.

Commentators predict Sharon won't tip his hand before an exact election date is set because if he quits Likud, that would allow the party, under its new leader, to put off the vote until mid-year _ something that would work against the prime minister by giving Likud time to regroup.

Sharon is expected to settle on an election date before Wednesday, when parliament is scheduled to vote on a bill to dissolve itself.

In Likud, Sharon faces a two-pronged challenge for the party's leadership, most prominently from bitter rival Benjamin Netanyahu, who has trailed in recent polls. Some party officials have tried to persuade Netanyahu to rally behind Sharon to save the party from fracturing and shrinking in the elections. So far, Netanyahu has held fast.

But besting Netanyahu is not Sharon's real problem in Likud, the party he helped to found nearly three decades ago.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team