Four men at the heart of Israeli politics

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon

The Israeli Prime Minister since 2001 , has a history of dismantling what he builds.

First there was the Shlomzion party he established in 1976; then, in September 2005, he led the withdrawal from the Jewish settlements in Gaza of which he was the architect.

Now, Mr Sharon has quit Likud, the hardline party he helped found more than three decades ago. It is the most radical stage in the recent transformation of the archetypcal hawk towards a more centrist, peace-orientated platform.

Benjamin Netanyahu

* The former prime minister is Ariel Sharon's bitter rival and the natural choice for the next leader of Likud. He served as finance minister after Mr Sharon's government was elected in 2003 but, furious over his leader's apparent softening stance on the peace process, Mr Netanyahu resigned shortly before the evacuations. Since then he has made clear his ambition to lead Likud - the natural home for his hardline right-wing politics - and has been the driving force behind a rebel movement against Mr Sharon.

Amir Peretz

* It was largely the new Labour Party leader's decision to pull out of Ariel Sharon's governing coalition that forced the Prime Minister's hand. Mr Peretz vowed to fight the election on a platform that moved away from the peace process with the Palestinians and towards the domestic agenda. The 53-year-old Moroccan-born former trade union chief with a trademark moustache represents not just a new generation of Labour leader but also a quest to return the party to its social democratic roots.

Shimon Peres

* Despite speculation that the former Labour leader was one of the most prominent politicians targeted by Mr Sharon to join his new party, the prime minister hinted yesterday that his former coalition deputy would soon leave mainstream politics. If so, it will be a quiet end to a career that has spanned almost 50 years and included several years as prime minister. Before he was ousted from Labour's top post by Amir Peretz, Mr Peres was happy to stay in coalition until the next scheduled elections in November 2006.