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Sharon shakes up Israeli politics

Prime minister announces 'liberal movement'

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon answered questions Monday during a news conference in Jerusalem.


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Ariel Sharon

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the formation of a new "liberal movement" after resigning from the right-wing Likud Party he helped create, saying it could not achieve Israel's national goals.

The move is likely to trigger early elections. Sharon said he would seek a third term as prime minister and follow the route of the U.S.-backed road map for peace plan.

He said he wanted to "lay the foundations for a peace settlement in which the state's permanent borders will be set with the terrorist organizations being dismantled. This is not a new plan. I'm talking about the road map." (Watch how Sharon shakes up Israeli politics -- 3:14)

Sharon said this year's Israeli military and civilian withdrawal from Gaza, which he orchestrated, had created new possibilities for peace.

Elections would likely be held in March, and the vote is expected to pit Sharon as a centrist against Likud hardliners such as Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon's government over the pullout.

Sharon said the easiest course of action would have been for him to lead Likud in new primaries and a new election, but he added, "I decided to leave the Likud today. The Likud in its current format is unable to lead Israel to its national goals."

He said there would not be a new disengagement plan for the West Bank. Instead, he said, he fully embraces the road map, which calls for the Palestinians to put an end to terrorist organizations and for Israel to freeze settlement activities.

The goal of that plan is a "two-state solution" with a secure Israel living side by side with a Palestinian state.

Earlier, Israel Radio reported that Sharon had resigned in a letter handed to Likud chairman Tzachi Hanegbi.

"I am resigning from the party and forming a new one," the letter reportedly said.

The decision by Sharon, 77, to abandon the party, which has traditionally won the support of Orthodox Jews and settlers, was unprecedented in Israeli politics.

After resigning, Sharon met with potential members of his new party, which would be called the National Responsibility Party.

Sharon could be joined in the new party by high-profile political figures on the left and right, including Finance Minister Ehud Olmert.

Sharon formally requested that President Moshe Katsav dissolve the country's parliament, thereby paving the way for early elections.

On national television soon after his meeting with Sharon, Katsav said he agreed with the prime minister that elections should be held as soon as possible.

However, first the president must hold consultations with legal advisers and with candidates from major parties to see if any of them can form a ruling coalition, which is considered unlikely.

Sharon counts on moderates

Polls show that Sharon remains extremely popular with the majority of Israelis, and he hopes to capitalize on that popularity.

Moderate Israelis make up the majority of voters, and Sharon will count on them to provide him with the margin of victory.

Among the Israelis in the center of the spectrum are more than 1 million Russian immigrants, many of whom have voted with Sharon and the Likud. The Russians oppose the Orthodox Jews and the settlers, who they see as getting too many government benefits.

The Russians are also opposed to Labor because most of them fled Russian socialism and no longer support the idea of a socialist state.

Political turmoil has been building

A statement from Sharon said he asked for the dissolution of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, after reaching the conclusion that a majority within it was opposed to the government, making it impossible for him to govern.

The prime minister's request to Katsav came after the Labor party voted Sunday to withdraw from Sharon's ruling coalition.

Sharon's decision to leave Likud to form a new party is an odd move for the longtime hawk who has become something of a political pragmatist.

For the past year, Sharon has faced rebellion inside Likud -- a party he helped create in 1973 -- over his decision to pull Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Israel had held the Palestinian territories since 1967.

Then Labor, which had been Sharon's main partner in his ruling coalition in the Knesset, voted to quit the coalition Sunday.

Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, said earlier that Sharon's move was "unprecedented in Israeli history and tantamount to a huge political earthquake."

"In what presumably would be his last term in office, he intends to make big strides which he cannot do hobbled by a right-wing party, and therefore his calculation is that he can through this big bang create a large center bloc that would give him the basis for making some political decisions vis-a-vis the Palestinians," Indyk told CNN.

Netanyahu, who served as prime minister in the late 1990s, opposed Sharon's territorial concessions in Gaza and quit as finance minister.

Shimon Peres was ousted as Labor leader last week by Amir Peretz, a self-described socialist known for his fiery rhetoric and class-warfare style. Peretz has called on members of Likud to switch to Labor.

Both major parties have declared they are in favor of March elections. The Knesset is due to vote on an election date Wednesday.

CNN's John Vause, Guy Raz and Shira Medding contributed to this report.

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