Israeli defense Minister Shaul Mofaz joined Ariel Sharon's new Kadima faction on Sunday, sowing further disarray in the ruling rightist Likud Party abandoned by the prime minister in the run-up to a March general election.
Mofaz is a popular figure among many Israelis for his tough handling of a 5-year-old Palestinian uprising, although opinion polls had predicted he would lose a Likud leadership race on December 19 to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sharon founded centrist Kadima after quitting Likud last month over a rebellion by hawkish legislators who condemned Israel's Gaza pullout as a surrender to Palestinian militants. Mofaz cited a sense of solidarity as reason for his defection.
"The combination of the prime minister and myself, which has proven itself so persuasively over the past few years, is the right and proper combination to lead Israel over the next few years," Mofaz told reporters.
Mofaz said he would remain defense minister if Sharon wins re-election in the March 28 poll. Army Radio quoted the prime minister as saying he was "pleased with Mofaz's decision."
Surveys predict Likud finishing a distant third to Kadima and the center-left Labor Party.
Netanyahu, who polls show to be the frontrunner to take the Likud helm in a party primary election next week, said Kadima's politicians were bringing "unacceptable norms" into politics.
"It's all a matter of trade for the (Kadima) politicians who have have no morals, no principles and no ideals," Netanyahu told reporters at his Tel Aviv headquarters on Sunday.
On Wednesday, Tzachi Hanegbi, acting Likud chairman and a pillar of its right wing, abandoned the party for Kadima. Veteran statesman Shimon Peres threw his support behind Sharon shortly after being ousted as Labor party leader last month.
Since announcing he was leaving Likud, Sharon has reaffirmed his commitment to a U.S.-backed peace "road map" that charts reciprocal steps leading to the creation of a Palestinian state in territories Israel captured in a 1967 war.