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Israeli Defense Minister Quits Likud Party, Joins Sharon

Israel's defense minister has quit the ruling Likud Party, and joined Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new centrist party.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says he quit the hawkish Likud Party because it has been hijacked by the far-right.

"The Likud ... is growing apart from me and is moving in the direction of ... right-wing extremists," Mr. Mofaz told a news conference. He was referring to Likud hardliners who want to hold on to all of the West Bank.

Mr. Mofaz' departure is another blow for the Likud since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quit the party three-weeks ago, following a dispute with rebels opposed to his pullout from the Gaza Strip last August. Mr. Sharon has taken many top Likud parliamentarians to his new centrist Kadima Party, and the defense minister is the latest to join the ranks.

"For the security challenges facing the state of Israel, there is a need for an experienced, level-headed leadership the people can trust," Mr. Mofaz said, adding that he and Mr. Sharon are the right men at the right time.

Polls show the Prime Minister crushing his Likud opponents in early elections on March 28. So the Likud-led Israeli right, which opposes territorial compromise, is in disarray.

Political analyst Charlie Levine says the three nationalist parties must unite into one bloc if they are to challenge Mr. Sharon.

"I think they only have one choice, and that is quickly to organize the entire right of center under one banner, if they do not do that, there is no reason in the world to vote for the Likud," said Mr. Levine.

Now that the public has survived the trauma of the Gaza pullout, polls indicate that a majority of Israelis have abandoned the Likud's vision of a greater Israel. And they appear ready to follow Mr. Sharon into the next phase-further Israeli withdrawals from parts of the West Bank.