The acting leader of the ruling Likud Party on Wednesday said he was leaving the party to join the new centrist bloc of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in the latest blow to the embattled Likud. Tzachi Hanegbi, a longtime Likud leader and son of one of the party's pioneers, said he had lost faith in Likud's current leadership and believed that Sharon is the best person to lead the country to peace with the Palestinians.
"It is my deep belief that the good of the country demands the continuation of Ariel Sharon's term as prime minister," Hanegbi told a news conference in Tel Aviv. "I will not be able to stand behind any of those who are running for leadership of the Likud."
Hanegbi's departure was the latest blow to Likud, which has plummeted in opinion polls since Sharon's departure last month. Sharon said leaving the hardline Likud to form the new centrist Kadima party would give him more flexibility in pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
National elections are scheduled in March, and Kadima enjoys a wide lead over Likud in opinion polls. Likud has been riven by infighting and finger-pointing since Sharon's departure.
It was not immediately clear what post Hanegbi might assume in Kadima. Sharon has attracted a number of top politicians, including longtime Labor leader Shimon Peres, to his party, and competition for senior posts is expected to be stiff.
Hanegbi, the son of Geula Cohen, a Likud pioneer, has held a number of senior Cabinet positions during a 17-year legislative career. However, his popularity has been weakened by repeated accusations of ethical violations throughout his career. Israeli police are reportedly considering filing charges that he improperly appointed political allies to important jobs during his time as environment minister, reports the AP. I.L.