ARIEL Sharon, Israel's prime minister, yesterday re-affirmed his commitment to the United States-backed road-map peace plan as he launched a new "liberal" political party.
Mr Sharon's founding of the National Responsibility party has split the Israeli right wing as part of a high-risk gamble for a third term in power. He described his new party as "liberal" and said it would give Israel fresh hope for peace.
The political future of the ousted Labour leader, Shimon Peres, who served as a key ally of Mr Sharon until he was voted out in a leadership contest earlier this month, remained uncertain last night with speculation that he might join his former coalition partner.
Leaving the Likud party spared Mr Sharon from what was expected to be a difficult contest with hard-line rival Benjamin Netanyahu in a party leadership election.
It turns Israel's forthcoming election, likely to be held in March, into a three-way race in which Mr Sharon will try to cast himself as the responsible centre choice, as opposed to extremism on the right in the form of Mr Netanyahu and on the left in the form of the new Labour party leader, Amir Peretz.
It was Mr Peretz's surprise election as Labour leader two weeks ago that propelled Israel towards new elections when he fulfilled a promise to pull his party out of the national unity government.
Early yesterday, Mr Sharon asked Moshe Katsav, Israel's president, to dissolve parliament, pushing for a March election. During an evening press conference, he referred to the thwarting of his plans, including a recent attempt to appoint new cabinet ministers, by the same hard-liners inside Likud who had sought unsuccessfully to block the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Mr Sharon said: "Life within that body became intolerable, it was full of unacceptable ideas." He said he was certain he would have prevailed in the party leadership contest over Mr Netanyahu, but that staying in the party would have meant "wasting time in political struggles".
At the press conference, Mr Sharon made it clear that establishing a new party did not signal any change in his strategy of avoiding negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until it dismantles armed militant groups.
He voiced support for the international peace blueprint known as the road-map, but said the Palestinians were not fulfilling their requirements.
Mr Sharon refused to set a timetable for when he would dismantle settlement outposts as stipulated in the road-map but added it was likely more West Bank settlements would be dismantled as part of a final peace deal.
Mr Sharon was able to get the immediate backing of 12 out of the 40 Likud party MPs. But in a setback, Shaul Mofaz, the defence minister, announced last night that he was remaining in Likud and would stand against Mr Netanyahu for the party leadership.
Another Likud leadership contender, Uzi Landau, referring to corruption scandals that have swirled around Mr Sharon, said yesterday: "This means that corruption is leaving Likud and will become the flagship of the new party. Now there is hope that the Likud will return to its principles, to clean politics."
Ophir Pines-Paz, a Labour MP, predicted failure for Mr Sharon's new venture: "You can't set up a party like it's Lego, it won't work. This is not something that can lead Israel for the next four years."