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Israel's Sharon Considers Bolting Ruling Likud Party

Israel heads into a week of turbulent politics after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to call early elections. Speculation is rife that Mr. Sharon will leave his ruling party.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to decide within days whether to bolt his hawkish Likud Party. With early elections set to take place in February or March, Mr. Sharon could form a moderate, centrist party that would appeal to middle-of-the-road voters.

Aides are urging the Prime Minister to quit the Likud because party rebels opposed to his pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer are making it impossible for him to govern. The rebels accuse Mr. Sharon of betraying Likud ideology by abandoning territory in the Biblical land of Israel. Without their votes, Mr. Sharon is unable to win parliamentary support for his policies.

Deputy Premier Ehud Olmert of the Likud is the Prime Minister's right hand man. "I think Sharon's priorities will be dependent on whether the Likud party is prepared to line up behind him in support of the policies that he advocates," he said.

Now that Israel has pulled out Gaza, Mr. Sharon wants to withdraw from more territory in the West Bank. But Likud rebels like Uzi Landau say they won't be a rubber stamp for Mr. Sharon's policies. "No, that is not a possibility, we are a democratic party," he said.

Mr. Sharon was forced to call early elections after his senior coalition partner, the dovish Labor Party, elected a new leader, Amir Peretz, who decided to leave the government.

So at 77, the next elections may be Mr. Sharon's last chance to achieve what he sees as his historic mission: withdrawing from some territory to create defensible borders that will insure a strong Jewish majority. The Likud rebels pose a major obstacle to that mission, so the Prime Minister is prepared to breakaway from the ideological party that he helped establish nearly 30 years ago.