Ariel Sharon's top allies kicked off their election campaign Tuesday, saying the prime minister's new centrist party would push for a final agreement with the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Sharon's new party, formed Monday when the prime minister seceded from the hardline Likud, gained instant support across Israel.
Polls showed the party would muster enough votes in elections to propel Sharon back into the prime minister's seat. Officials said March 28 is the agreed election date. Seeking to build on the momentum from Sharon's announcement, several Likud defectors who joined the prime minister took to the airwaves to define the still unnamed party, telling reporters that it would support a deal with the Palestinians based on the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.
Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, a top Sharon ally, said the prime minister wants to draw Israel's final borders in talks with the Palestinians. Sharon's opponents in his old party began the race to replace him, while taking potshots at their former leader.
Olmert shot back, saying that Netanyahu did not have the fortitude to lead the country. A poll published in the Maariv newspaper Tuesday showed Sharon's party dominating the 120-member Knesset with 30 seats, with the Labor Party getting 26 seats and Likud dwindling from its current 40 to 15 if Netanyahu becomes party chief. The poll of 532 people had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
A poll in the Yediot Ahronot daily showed Sharon's party winning 33 seats, Labor 26 and a Netanyahu-led Likud just 12. The survey of 702 people had a margin of error of about 3.8 percentage points.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom announced Tuesday he would challenge Netanyahu, joining Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Agriculture Minister Israel Katz and former Cabinet minister Uzi Landau in the race to lead Likud into the next election. Acting Likud chairman Tzachi Hanegbi recommended the party hold elections for a new leader Dec. 19. Sharon announced Monday night that he was leaving Likud to give himself a free hand to pursue peacemaking opportunities created by Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.
On Tuesday, the parliament and president settled their differences and set March 29 as the date for elections, officials said. Parliament spokesman Giora Pordes said that under the agreement, the parliament would pass a law calling elections, while allowing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to appoint ministers in the interim.
Sharon had asked President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the parliament, and Katsav agreed _ but the parliament proceeded with its legislation, setting up a conflict. After a day of negotiations, Katsav accepted the arrangement, said his spokeswoman, Hagit Cohen. "From the president's perspective, this is acceptable," she told The Associated Press.
Sharon's new party remained nameless Tuesday, the AP reports. Sharon reportedly rejected "National Responsibility" as not catchy enough and political analysts mocked a proposal to call it "Hope." Sharon aide Lior Chorev said another new possibility was "Forward."