In Israel, Sifting the Aftermath of Sharon’s Political Earthquake
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In Israel, Sifting the Aftermath of Sharon’s Political Earthquake

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Ariel Sharon’s dramatic break with the ruling Likud Party is expected to have implications far beyond Israeli politics. Sharon’s move Monday to form a new centrist party, temporally dubbed “National Responsibility,” will undoubtedly change the Israeli political landscape — but seasoned politicians assert that the prime minister would not have embarked on such a risky political adventure unless he plans major peace moves with the Palestinians that he knows wouldn’t be acceptable to the Likud.

Though Sharon denies it, some pundits say he is aiming to create a new political constellation in which he can withdraw Israeli forces from most the West Bank and set a new, long-term border with the Palestinians.

The move leaves the Likud in disarray, looking for a new leader and with polls predicting a resounding defeat in early elections, expected in March.

Sharon set in motion the process leading to early elections Monday morning when he called on President Moshe Katsav and asked him to dissolve the Knesset. Sharon then sent a letter to Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Likud Central Committee, informing him that he was resigning from the party.

The two moves added up to a political earthquake: early elections in March, with the prime minister running for re-election at the head of a new party.

Few doubt that Sharon easily could have returned to power on a Likud ticket. He was well ahead of his potential leadership rivals within the party, and with Sharon at the helm, polls predicted a comfortable win for Likud in the elections.

So why did Sharon make his risky move?

For one, he is tired of having to deal with rebels in the Likud Knesset faction and widespread opposition to his peace moves in the party’s powerful Central Committee.

At least half of the Likud’s Knesset faction opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank, Sharon’s crowning foreign policy achievement. The Central Committee, with a sizeable contingent of well-organized right-wingers, often rejected key policy initiatives.

“Staying in the Likud would have meant wasting time in internal political battles, rather than doing what needs to be done,” Sharon declared at a news conference Monday evening.

Political pundit Sima Kadmon, writing in Yediot Achronot, summed up the prime minister’s dilemma: He could easily win re-election on a Likud ticket, but then wouldn’t be able even to begin carrying out his political agenda.

“If he stayed in Likud, his victories would be undermined by an inability to form a coalition or to govern,” Kadmon wrote.

To avoid the strength-sapping opposition he encountered as Likud leader, Sharon wants to reform Israel’s political and party systems in ways that give the leader more power. Instead of unwieldy coalitions, he wants to introduce something like the American presidential system — and in his new party, there will be no potentially oppositional central committee.

“The Israeli people want to see politics in a different key,” said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, one of five Likud Cabinet ministers who left Likud with Sharon.

In his news conference, Sharon insisted that there would be no further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank and said he intends to scrupulously follow the internationally approved “road map” peace plan — which envisages further Israeli territorial concessions — provided the Palestinians first meet their road map commitment to disarm terrorist groups.

Several leading pundits, however, are convinced that Sharon must have more up his sleeve: If all he wants is to mark time with the road map, there would have been no real reason for him to leave the Likud, they argue.

Ma’ariv editor Amnon Dankner maintains that, if he’s re-elected, Sharon will put forward a far-reaching political plan.

“His confidants are speaking about the possibility of establishing a new, very far-reaching line as Israel’s eastern border with the Palestinians, a line that will be decided on in consultation with the Americans,” Dankner writes. “The pullback will be carried out with the understanding and cooperation of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, but only after the Americans announce that they recognize it at least as a temporary, de facto border, until a final settlement in the far distant future.”

Dan Naveh, one of six Likud ministers who did not follow Sharon out of the party, claims that Sharon is only saying there will be no further withdrawals in order to attract Likud voters.

So far, 14 of the Likud’s 40 Knesset members have joined Sharon. That’s just enough to secure recognition by the Knesset as a breakaway faction entitled to significant public funding and airtime in the upcoming campaign.

The one prize Sharon wanted but didn’t get was Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who decided to stay in the Likud and compete for its leadership. Other prime candidates for Sharon’s new party include Labor legislator Haim Ramon; the former chief of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter; and the president of Ben-Gurion University, Avishai Braverman, a highly regarded economist.

What are the new party’s chances of success? In the past, several breakaway centrist parties have started with a bang and ended with a whimper. But none of those was led by a popular sitting prime minister, and initial polls suggest that National Responsibility is likely to do well.

A weekend survey in Yediot Achronot, taken before Sharon announced his new party, already showed it garnering 28 seats, tied with Labor under its new chief, Amir Peretz. Both parties placed well ahead of a Likud led by the new leadership front-runner, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which got 18 seats in the poll.

Sharon, the general who combined five disparate parties to form the Likud in 1973 and create a real challenge to decades of uninterrupted Labor rule, now has moved to marginalize the party he claims is dangerously out of control.

If he succeeds, he will add another chapter to a remarkable military and political career. More importantly, his bold new initiative almost certainly will have major consequences for Israel’s future.

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