A majority of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's advisers recommended on Thursday that he leave the Likud and start a new party, but he has not yet decided his political future, sources close to Sharon said on Thursday.
Sharon convened his "ranch forum" of advisers for a meeting that lasted more than two hours at the Prime Minister's Office in Tel Aviv. Sharon said at the conclusion of the meeting that he would not announce his decision until the middle of next week.
"The forum is not a democracy and the prime minister will ultimately make the decision alone," a meeting participant said.
Sharon is still awaiting the results of in-depth polls and focus groups before deciding. His main reason for leaving the Likud would be that he intends to take significant diplomatic steps in his next term and would not want to be limited by the hawks in the Likud faction.
The advisers who recommended that he remain in the party said that Sharon would be taking too great a risk if he abandoned the Likud brand name and the party funding it received from the government due to its 40 mandates.
Sharon's fundraising ability is limited after his son, MK Omri Sharon, was convicted on Tuesday of raising funds illegally for his father.
Another argument raised in the meeting was that remaining in the Likud could allow him to vanquish his political foe, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, while a decision to leave the Likud could give Netanyahu the Prime Minister's Office on a silver platter.
Sharon will not announce his decision until after the Knesset passes a bill to dissolve the parliament because he is concerned that if he decides to form a new party, his opponents in the Knesset will try to delay the election. The date of the election will not be decided until Sunday or Monday after Sharon completes a series of meetings with the heads of the parties in the Knesset.
Following a morning meeting with Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz, it appeared that the election would be in February, but Sharon later told Shinui chairman Yosef Lapid that the race would be in March. Elections in Israel have been held on Tuesdays lately, but because the first two Tuesdays in March fall on the memorial day for unknown soldiers and Purim, Sharon may decide to hold the election on another day of the week rather than wait for March 21.
A source close to Sharon told The Jerusalem Post that the latest dates of preference are Monday, March 6 or Wednesday, March 8, because the prime minister wants the election to be held as soon as possible.
Likud and Labor teams led by faction chairmen Gideon Sa'ar and Ephraim Sneh will meet on Sunday to negotiate the election date. Peretz said that Sharon could decide the date himself as long as it was no later than March.
"The public does not want elections," Sharon told Peretz. "It's irresponsible to break up the national unity government and you are making a bad mistake, but if this is your decision, then let's have the election as soon as possible." Peretz responded that is was undemocratic of Sharon to call his decision to quit the coalition irresponsible.
Likud leadership candidate Uzi Landau called it "chutzpah" that Sharon had not yet decided whether to remain in the Likud and that until his decision, Sharon should not be allowed to represent the party's interests. He called upon Sa'ar to convene an emergency meeting of the faction to run the party and negotiate the election date with other factions.
"Sharon is not acting on behalf of the Likud but to destroy the party," Landau said.
Likud rebel MK Michael Ratzon lashed out at Sharon for calling the rebels' pledges of Likud unity on Wednesday hypocrisy. He dared Sharon to leave the party, saying that if he stayed, he would be forced to abide by the party platform and if he left, he would lose.
"The Likud is a huge party with strong roots and we will win with Sharon or without him," Ratzon said. "We tried to find a common language with Sharon and he rejected it. Sharon behaved arrogantly at a time when he should have been displaying leadership."
Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz convened the Likud secretariat at Tel Aviv's Beit Hahayal to begin the party's preparations for the election. The secretariat decided to ban Likud Knesset contenders from bringing loudspeakers and distributing free food when the central committee elects the party's list. The decision was intended to avoid repeating the carnival atmosphere of the 2003 election that embarrassed the party.
"The Likud is in a strange and problematic situation in which we don't know in what framework we will be running," Katz told the secretariat. "I call upon Sharon to announce that he is running in the Likud. The Likud will unite behind whoever wins the election. The Likud must find a way to go forward together."
The secretariat also decided that if former Shin-Bet chief Avi Dichter or other people joined the Likud, they would have to come before the secretariat for approval. In the past, the Likud chairman was allowed to decide himself whether to void the party's three-year membership minimum for prospective Knesset candidates.
According to numbers revealed at the meeting, only 128,691 Likud members are eligible to vote in the Likud leadership primary. An additional 23,737 might be able to vote if they work out payment issues, making a total of 152,428 possible voters.
Former Labor chairman Shimon Peres told a rally of supporters in Tel Aviv that he would work to make sure that a right-wing government would not be formed. He hinted that he would seek reelection to the Knesset with Labor and that he would not ask for the second slot on the Labor list to be reserved for him.