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Acting Leader of Israel's Ruling Likud Party Quits

Israel's ruling Likud faction has suffered another blow, two weeks after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quit the party.

The acting leader of Israel's hawkish Likud party, Tsahi Hanegbi, has quit and joined Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new centrist party.

"It is my deep belief that the good of the country demands the continuation of Ariel Sharon's term as prime minister," Mr. Hanegbi told a news conference.

His departure is another blow to the Likud, which has been reeling since Mr. Sharon quit the party two weeks ago. The Prime Minister has taken much of the Likud with him. And the latest poll shows the Likud would win just 12 seats in the 120-member parliament in early elections in March, it currently holds 40.

Mr. Hanegbi, who has been in the Likud for 17 years, said the party is going nowhere.

"Only Ariel Sharon can lead the state of Israel in the strategic steps it must take," he said.

Those steps are said to include Israeli withdrawals from some areas of the West Bank, part of Mr. Sharon's master plan to draw defensible borders. If this cannot be done through a peace agreement with the Palestinians, officials have broadly hinted that Mr. Sharon would go it alone. That is what he did when Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in August - unilaterally.

The Gaza pullout infuriated hardliners in the Likud, so they sought revenge, voting against Mr. Sharon's policies in parliament. That prompted the prime minister to quit the Likud and form a more moderate party.

Mr. Sharon has outmaneuvered his hawkish opponents time and again. First, he pulled Israel out of Gaza, and now, the once powerful Likud has collapsed.