TEL AVIV, Israel, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new party, encouraged by the results of several public opinion polls, Tuesday moved to win Knesset recognition and to expand its ranks.
His former party, the Likud, was reeling from his breakaway and hurried to set an early date for electing a new party leader. The leading candidate, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaking to Channel 1 TV said he believed he had plenty of time to "Bring back many of our voters. They will come home." However, in the meantime, he had to contend with another rival in the race for the Likud's number one slot: Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who announced his candidacy Tuesday afternoon. The elected leader would automatically be the Likud's candidate for prime minister in the national elections slated for March 28.
Sharon's breakaway, announced Monday evening, came close on the heels of the election of a new Labor Party leader. It helped draw new political lines with clearer distinctions between hawkish and dovish parties. Labor's Chairman Amir Peretz is a left wing dove, Sharon is a centrist, and his defection leaves the Likud with its more hawkish element.
Sharon's strategic adviser, Eyal Arad, Tuesday told reporters the split in the Likud was, "Basically unavoidable."
Sharon's acceptance of the roadmap, the internationally devised peace plan designed to lead to the creation of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip shattered Likud dreams of keeping the entire "Land of Israel," that includes the area west of the Jordan River. It was "an ideological revolution," Arad said.
"It was a good dream, a just dream, but it crashed against the wall of reality.... (Sharon's) leadership was the main factor that allowed right wingers like myself...to accept that reality and (the idea of) two states (Israel and Palestine) living side by side without terrorism."
Other Likud leaders, such as former minister Uzi Landau and Education Minister Limor Livnat, felt the party must remain committed to the "old ideology," even at the cost of losing power, Arad said. For them, accepting an Arab sovereignty west of the Jordan River "was impossible."
Some of Sharon's advisers suggested he stay in the Likud, win the premiership and carry out the policies he wants. Experience has shown that a prime minister can have his way, Arad said.
However, Sharon realized such a move would require "Too much political capital ... spent on internal debates... Not a tactical debate but a strategic debate... that is going to rip the Likud ...from the inside."
The new party he formed has no name, yet. In requesting recognition as a Knesset faction it called itself Ahrayut Leumit (national responsibility) but there was talk of calling itself Kadima (forward). Arad said they were considering other names as well. Almost every person involved in the process proposed a name and some suggested more than one, he said.
Fourteen Likud Knesset members have formed the new list and David Tal, who has headed a one man Knesset faction, joined it Tuesday. Minister Haim Ramon of the Labor Party is expected to join Wednesday. Recognition as a Knesset faction means it would stand to get some $3.5 million of state funds for its election campaign.
Several public opinion polls conducted in recent days indicated that if elections were held now Sharon's new party would have emerged first, leaving its rival as a safe distance behind it.
A poll conducted for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper said Sharon's new party would have won 33 seats in the 120-member parliament, Labor 26, and a Likud headed by Netanyahu 12.
The Haaretz poll predicted Sharon would have won 30 mandates, Labor 26, and the Likud 15. A third poll, whose results were published Tuesday evening on Channel 1 TV said Sharon's party would have won 28 to 35 mandates, Labor 19 to 21 and the Likud headed by Netanyahu 16 to 20 seats.
Likud members acknowledged Sharon's breakaway shocked them. "The Likud might find itself in the opposition for many years," Haaretz quoted Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, of the Likud.
Likud hawks have been fighting Sharon for over a year and Yediot Aharonot commentator Sima Kadmon wrote:
"There is a difference between fighting Sharon within the Likud, even degrading him, and seeing him get up one morning and bringing the house down."
The Likud will elect the new party leader on Dec. 19. If no candidate wins 40 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held on Dec. 22.
Shalom Tuesday formally joined Netanyahu, Landau, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Agriculture Minister Israel Katz, and Moshe Feiglin who heads an ultra-nationalist faction in the race for the party's number one slot.
Netanyahu, Katz, Landau and Feiglin have opposed the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of four settlements in the northern West Bank.
Mofaz and Shalom went along with Sharon on the disengagement through Shalom was critical.
Shalom announced his candidacy in Tel Aviv. One of his campaign pitches reflected the Likud's worries over the new political setup.
"I believe I can stop the erosion towards (Labor's) Amir Peretz on social and political grounds and I can stop the erosion towards Sharon's party on political grounds. Is thee anyone here who does not think so?" he asked reporters.
Shalom, 47, was born in Tunisia and grew up in the Negev town of Beersheba. Labor's Peretz, 54, was born in Morocco and grew up in Sderot, west of Beersheba. Both would have an appeal to Jews from Arab countries.
Asked why Sharon was not fit to be prime minister, Shalom said: "You won't hear one disparaging word from me against another person." However, in his speech he said he wanted to advance the peace process without, "Adventurous processes of dangerous and unilateral concessions."
According to Yediot Aharonot's public opinion poll, if Likud supporters were to elect a party leader, now, Netanyahu would win 51 percent of the votes. Shalom and Mofaz would, each, get 15 percent, Haaretz said.