Israeli Defence Minister quits Likud to join Sharon

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz quit the right-wing Likud party on Sunday to join Ariel Sharon in the prime minister's new Kadima faction ahead of a March general election, a Kadima spokesman said.The surprise move was the latest high-level defection from the Likud, which Sharon left last month citing frustration with far-right rebels who opposed Israel's Gaza pullout.

Kadima spokesman Shmuel Dahan said Mofaz was joining the party. But Dahan declined to comment on an Israel Radio report that Mofaz had agreed to Sharon's request to stay on as defence minister.Army Radio quoted Sharon as saying he was "pleased with Mofaz's decision".

Mofaz, who supported the withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza that Israel completed in September, had lagged behind former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in opinion polls in the run-up to a Likud leadership election due to be held on December 19.

The surveys also showed the Likud finishing a distant third to Kadima and the centre-left Labour Party in the general election race.On Wednesday, Tzachi Hanegbi, the Likud's acting chairman and a pillar of its right wing, abandoned the party for Kadima, following in the footsteps of veteran statesman Shimon Peres, who quit Labour after it voted him out as its leader.

Since announcing his defection from the Likud, Sharon has reaffirmed his commitment to a U.S.-backed peace "road map" that charts reciprocal steps leading to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

But he has said there could be no progress towards peace until the Palestinian Authority fulfilled the road map's call to dismantle militant groups behind anti-Israeli violence. The plan also demands Israel halt Jewish settlement expansion, reports Reuters. I.L.

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