(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Following his morning meeting with New Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz Thursday morning, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Shinui chairman and opposition leader Yosef Lapid, and told him that within the coming days he would convene the Likud and announce his decision on whether or not to form his own party or remain in the Likud.
In their meeting, Peretz and Sharon decided not to hold the next elections on March 7, as had previously been speculated. Instead, the election date will fall somewhere between the end of February and the end of March, most likely on February 28, Peretz announced following the meeting.
"I'm letting him choose a date in that period between the end of February and the end of March and whatever date he chooses is acceptable to me, the earlier the better," Peretz said. "(Sharon) was adamant that we need to go to elections as soon as possible."
Such a date would allow Sharon to say that he decided when the election would be and not Peretz, who wants elections in March, or former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who wants elections in May.
Peretz came out of his meeting with Sharon saying the meeting with him was to the point, but added that the prime minister's recent attempts to paint his decision to dismantle the national-unity government as irresponsible were undemocratic on Sharon's part.
The Labor head's spokesman said before the meeting that because all the Labor ministers gave him their resignation letters on Monday, Peretz would come to Thursday's meeting "with the letters and with the upper hand."
Peretz asked Sharon to hold the election as soon as possible, with March 7 his ideal date, even though it falls on the Hebrew calendar date when soldiers with unknown burial places are memorialized.
Sharon did not come to the meeting with a date of preference in mind, but said he wanted the election "as soon as possible." Associates of Sharon said he was coming mainly to listen to Peretz.
On Sunday Sharon was scheduled to meet with the heads of the National Religious Party, Shas, Degel Hatorah, and Agudat Yisrael.
When asked in Wednesday's Likud faction meeting about when the election would be, Sharon said only that he would meet with the faction heads and "we will all be smarter on Monday."
Sharon's associates said the prime minister would not decide until Monday what date should be included in a bill to disperse the Knesset that is expected to pass on that day. Sources close to Sharon said his decision about whether to remain in the Likud would be finalized "on Saturday night, Sunday at the latest."
The main reasons Sharon would choose to form a new party would be to gain independence from the Likud faction and because forming a new party would allow him to immediately start his campaign against Peretz instead of embarking on a Likud primary race against Netanyahu and Likud rebel leader Uzi Landau.
Channel 1 reported that Sharon adviser Reuven Adler was spotted at a Tel Aviv cafe speaking to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni about the potential for a new party.
The reasons for remaining in the Likud include Sharon not wanting to abandon a proven brand name and the fact that, due to its 40 Knesset seats, the Likud will be given significant funding and television airtime from the government. If Sharon forms a new party, he would have to raise a sizable amount of money - something that may be difficult after his son, MK Omri Sharon, was convicted on Tuesday of illegally raising funds for his father.
Netanyahu said the Likud primary should be held "in a reasonable time" of some six weeks with the general election following as late as possible since "we need time to allow Peretz's support to erode."
Peretz's spokesman responded that Netanyahu would soon find out that Peretz is "unerodable."