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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to stay in the Likud and is leaning against forming a new political party because he believes that he could lead the Likud to a massive victory against new Labor chairman Amir Peretz, sources close to Sharon said on Saturday night.
Sharon convened his "ranch forum" of advisers in Herzliya on Thursday night to discuss the ramifications of Peretz's victory. Sharon said that Peretz's victory would require him to decide his political future this week, or next week at the latest.
Advisers Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad, Uri Shani, Yoram Raved, Yisrael Maimon and Sharon's sons Omri and Gilad participated in the meeting, and a clear majority recommended remaining in the Likud. They advised Sharon to give his opponents in the Likud faction another chance to prove that they can cooperate with him and unite the party ahead of impending elections.
"Sharon prefers the Likud because it's his party and he doesn't want to search for a new one," a participant in the meeting said. "It's the Likud that made him feel unwanted, but if he is wanted, he will stay. The Likud rebels have to decide whether they want to win big in the next election or commit suicide. If they come to their senses and decide they want Sharon, he will be there."
Likud rebel MK Michael Ratzon responded that his group would be willing to cooperate with Sharon and unify the party. He said it was up to the prime minister to come up with a political platform that could keep the party together.
"Peretz's election will allow us to sharpen our platform on diplomatic and socio-economic issues because Labor under Peretz is to the left of Meretz," Ratzon said. "Our path won 40 mandates last time and it can win 50 this time. If Sharon wants to do that, we will be happy to cooperate. But if he wants to continue fighting us, he will try again to appoint his lackeys to the cabinet."
Peretz threatened on Saturday night to topple Sharon's government already on Wednesday. He was angry that Sharon decided to meet with him only on Thursday after they discussed the possibility of meeting on Sunday.
"If the meeting with Sharon does not take place at the beginning of the week, we will have to topple the government already on Wednesday," Peretz told Channel 2. "Sharon acted irresponsibly by delaying our meeting and stalling. I know how to play political tricks too. The era in which Sharon can treat other parties like his marionettes is over."
Sharon's associates responded that Sharon genuinely does not have time to meet with Peretz until Thursday because of the large number of world leaders who came to Israel for the ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the Rabin assassination. They said that Sharon did not mean to slight Peretz, but that he would have to wait his turn to meet with Sharon after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former US president Bill Clinton, New York Senator Hilary Clinton and other dignitaries.
National Religious Party leader Zevulun Orlev said on Saturday night that he intends to present his proposal to disperse the Knesset on Wednesday even if Peretz asks him to delay the vote until after his meeting with Sharon. If the proposal falls, a bill dissolving the Knesset would not be able to be raised for six months.
Peretz said in the Channel 2 interview that if he were not elected prime minister, he would not agree to join a national unity government. He said that after the election he would either be prime minister or leader of the opposition.
Polls published over the weekend indicated that support for Labor increased significantly since Peretz's election on Wednesday. A Dialogue poll published in Ha'aretz found that Labor would receive 28 seats in the Knesset, compared to 39 for a Sharon-led Likud. A Teleseker poll in Ma'ariv predicted that Sharon's Likud would win 37 seats and Peretz's Labor 27.
The Dialogue poll found that if Sharon decided to form a new party with top Likud officials and outsiders like former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, his party would win 32 mandates, Labor 27 and a Netanyahu-led Likud 25.
Dichter told Ma'ariv over the weekend that he would decide soon whether to enter politics or the business world.