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Flow of Likudniks to New Sharon Party Strengthens P.m.’s Hand As Elections Near

When Ariel Sharon quit Israel’s Likud Party last month to form a new faction, his rivals predicted it would be a political retread of the center-left Labor Party. But with Sharon’s old colleagues bolting to follow him, the Kadima Party could in fact turn out to be “Likud, the Sequel.”

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Sunday became the latest senior Likudnik to defect, deepening the disarray in an Israeli ruling party still trying to recover from Sharon’s departure.

“The combination of the prime minister and myself, which has so resoundingly proven itself over the past few years, is the right and proper combination to lead Israel over the next few years,” Mofaz told reporters, adding that Sharon had promised Mofaz would keep the Defense portfolio should Kadima win the March 28 general election.

Victory seems almost assured, with surveys predicting that as many as 40 of the Knesset’s 120 seats will go to Sharon, who is popular for the relative smoothness with which he engineered Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this past summer.

Sharon also is bolstered by his alliance with Shimon Peres, who quit Labor after being voted out as its leader, and by the support of other former Likud stalwarts such as Tzachi Hanegbi, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert.

Kadima is followed in the polls by Labor under Peres’ successor, Amir Peretz, who for years was the head of Israel’s largest labor union. Likud is trailing increasingly far behind.

Mofaz’s walkout further improves the prospects for Benjamin Netanyahu, the front-runner in a Likud primary scheduled for next week. But in the general election, Netanyahu’s more hardline stance on peace talks with the Palestinians looks doomed to fall on deaf ears, unless the Israeli security situation deteriorates drastically.

That scenario appeared to be suggested by the Hamas leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshaal, who foresaw redoubled terrorism in the new year after a “truce” declared by Palestinian armed factions expires at the end of this month.

“I say it loudly: We will not enter a new truce and our people are preparing for a new round of conflict,” Meshaal told a Damascus rally last Friday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who persuaded Hamas and other terrorist groups to scale back their attacks under the cease-fire he and Sharon declared in February, moved to maintain calm.

“We have agreed on one truce,” Abbas said in a Gaza speech. “Therefore, we should continue with it until security prevails, in order that our citizens should not feel threatened by planes and tanks.”

The declaration by Abbas fell far short of the counterterrorist crackdown required by the U.S.-led peace “road

map.”

Israel, still smarting from Islamic Jihad’s suicide bombing in Netanya on Dec. 5, said that unless Abbas takes real action it would consider converting the crossings on its boundary with Gaza to formal border terminals, which would slow the flow of Palestinian trade.

Moving to distinguish himself diplomatically, Peretz pledged that if elected prime minister he would achieve peace.

“I will act to reach a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians with the utmost speed,” he told Yediot Achronot on Sunday. “By the end of our term, a permanent settlement must be behind us.”

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