- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcement on Monday that he is leaving the Likud Party he formed 32 years ago has set the stage for political change in Israel, change that could potentially have major implications for Washington’s efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

By leaving Likud and forming his own National Responsibility Party, Mr. Sharon has made it clear that he is determined to continue with his uniquely Israeli form of centrism: combining a determination to wage war against terrorists with a willingness to make major territorial and political concessions to the Palestinians.

In retrospect, Mr. Sharon’s decision to leave Likud was probably inevitable, as he came to the conclusion that the party he had founded would try to deny him any flexibility in negotiations with the Palestinians. For now, the prime minister’s decision has transformed Israel from a democracy with two major parties to one with three: Labor on the left; Mr. Sharon’s party in the center; and Likud on the right.

For more than a quarter century, Mr. Sharon had been Israel’s most prominent advocate of settlement expansion and opponent of concessions. But for the past two years, Mr. Sharon has spent much of his time in a very unfamiliar position: locked in political combat with members of his party who regard his decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and northern West Bank settlements as a betrayal. They have blocked Knesset passage of Mr. Sharon’s budget and thwarted his attempts to appoint his own supporters to Israel’s cabinet.

Since he was elected prime minister in a 25-point landslide on Feb. 6, 2001, Mr. Sharon has been the dominant figure in Israeli politics. The elections will be held March 28; until then, Mr. Sharon will preside over a caretaker government. Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and six other candidates will square off in a Dec. 19 primary to select a new Likud leader.



Mr. Sharon’s continuing political strength relative to Likud is probably a positive course for peace-brokers and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Still, the Palestinians have developed a well-deserved reputation for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It’s up to Mr. Abbas to see to it that this opportunity is not lost.

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