(CNSNews.com) - Israel entered a new political era late Monday when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly confirmed he was leaving the Likud to form a new, centrist party, which he said would push ahead with the "roadmap" peace program.
The U.S.-sponsored program has as its goal the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, living peaceably alongside Israel.
Hours after his announcement, a majority of Israeli lawmakers voted to dissolve the Knesset, ahead of early elections to be held on March 28. The decision effectively will put on hold any movement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process until after the vote.
In order to take the roadmap forward, Sharon's new Ahrayut Leumit ("National Responsibility") party will have to do well enough at the polls to head the next government, probably in coalition with the liberal Labor Party.
The 77-year-old former army general immediately was joined by 14 Likud lawmakers, including five government ministers -- more than one-third of the center-right party's 40 representatives in the 120-seat Knesset.
That achievement means Ahrayut Leumit is legally considered a "breakaway "political faction and therefore entitled to state campaign funding.
Sharon failed, however, to lure Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz with promises that he could retain his powerful cabinet portfolio. Mofaz told a press conference late Monday he would remain in the Likud, and put himself forward as a candidate for party leadership.
Mofaz will contest the leadership post in primaries on Thursday against several other contenders, including Binyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister who quit Sharon's cabinet in the summer to protest Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip; and Uzi Landau, one of a group of Likud "loyalists" or "rebels" who also strongly opposed the Gaza pullout.
Although Sharon's shock move dramatically decreases the size of what has been Israel's largest party, Landau predicted that ultimately it would be good for the Likud.
With Sharon leaving the Likud, so too would "corruption" leave the party, he said, in an apparent reference to allegations of graft against politicians including Sharon's son and Likud lawmaker Omri, who last week pleaded guilty to charges of campaign finance fraud.
"The Likud can now return to its core: the land of Israel, clean politics and social sensitivity," Landau said.
Sharon is one of the few political figures remaining from Israel's founding generation. When Israel attained statehood in 1948, he was a platoon commander in the fledgling defense force -- and was a key figure in Israel's wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982.
He helped to establish the Likud in the early 1970s and was a leading proponent of its "land of Israel" ideology.
But the security "hawk" shifted to the left in recent years, culminating in the dismantling of Jewish settlements and "disengagement" from Gaza last August.
The Gaza pullout brought accusations of betrayal from many conservative Israelis who also oppose the roadmap, including those in his own party who said he had abandoned the Likud's core platform.
Sharon told a press conference Monday evening that it would have been a "waste of time" to stay in the Likud and have to deal with internal political wrangling instead of actions "on behalf of the country."
He said a key task for his new party was to implement the road map. "We'll set the country's permanent borders while insisting on the dismantlement of [Palestinian] terror organizations."
Other priorities would include addressing crime, poverty and educational issues, he said.
Speculation persists about the possibility that veteran Laborite Shimon Peres may join Sharon's new party. It was fueled Monday by Peres' no-show at a meeting of Labor lawmakers, Ha'aretz reported.
Peres, a former prime minister and the architect of the "Oslo" peace process with the Palestinians, served as Labor leader until his surprise defeat in a leadership battle earlier this month.
Labor's new leader, left-wing trade unionist Amir Peretz, on Sunday withdrew his party from the Sharon-led coalition, triggering the early election call and Sharon's announcement that he was quitting the Likud.
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