Ariel Sharon's new centrist party is widening its lead and would crush political rivals in March elections, a poll indicated Wednesday, hours before elder statesman Shimon Peres was to announce he is quitting the Labor Party and joining forces with the prime minister. Peres was to return from a trip to Spain later Wednesday and hold a news conference. He was expected to declare support for Sharon's candidacy, but stop short of joining Sharon's new party, Kadima.
The alliance between Peres and Sharon, who've been both foes and occasional partners in the past three decades, would cap a month of political upheaval.
The shake-up began in early November when populist union leader Amir Peretz ousted Peres as Labor Party chief. Barely two weeks later, Sharon, 77, announced he was quitting the hardline Likud Party he helped found three decades ago and was forming the moderate Kadima. In a poll published Wednesday in the Yediot Ahronot daily, Kadima won 34 seats in the 120-member parliament, up one from a survey last week. Labor, Kadima's most likely coalition partner, also gained a seat, for a new total of 27, according to the poll by the independent Dahaf Institute.
Likud, which dominated Israeli politics for three decades, dropped from 40 to 10 seats, making it the fourth largest party, after the ultra-Orthodox Shas. The poll had an error margin of 4 percentage points.
"Sharon blitzed the Likud," political analyst Hanan Crystal said on Israel Radio. "He took one-third of the party (legislators) and most Likud voters."
Late Tuesday, Sharon picked up more political clout, with 72 mayors, most from Labor and Likud, attending a meeting at his official residence in Jerusalem. Many of the mayors declared their support for Sharon, saying they were disenchanted with their own movements. Sharon's party does not have a grassroots organization yet, and the mayors could help fill the gap.
"I came to join his new party, Kadima, after my party was taken over by different people who threw out the landlords," said Rishon Lezion Mayor Meir Nitzan, who handed back his Labor Party membership card, signed in 1950 by Israel's founder David Ben-Gurion, during the dinner at Sharon's house.
"The right place, based on what I see, based on the platform being formed, is in Sharon's party," Nitzan told Israel's Army Radio. Sharon's new allies have said the prime minister, if re-elected, would strive to draw Israel's final borders and wrap up a peace agreement with the Palestinians in his third term. However, they have also said Israel wants to keep all of Jerusalem and the areas of the West Bank with large Jewish settlements, an offer the Palestinians reject.
Although Peres has been trying to keep his announcement under caps, he gave broad hints while talking to reporters in Barcelona on Tuesday, saying it was a difficult decision and praising Sharon, reports the AP. I.L.