- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2005

TEL AVIV — Palestinians reacted to Ariel Sharon’s defection from the Likud Party with uncharacteristic optimism yesterday, expressing hope that the Israeli prime minister would advance peace negotiations and their goal of establishing a sovereign state if re-elected in March.

The aftershock of Israel’s political upheaval was keenly felt in the West Bank, where Palestinians expect Mr. Sharon will cede more territory and evacuate additional Jewish settlements.

Normally reserved in reacting to domestic Israeli political affairs, Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat spoke in dramatic metaphors akin to those heard in the Israeli press.

“It’s like a sudden eruption of a volcano,” he said. “I don’t think this is your usual coalition wrangling in Israel. It’s about Palestinians and the peace process.

“I hope once the dust clears, the Israeli people will elect a government that is ready to go for the endgame.”

An Israeli poll published yesterday showed Mr. Sharon’s new party starts Israel’s four-month election campaign as the front-runner.

The Yediot Ahronot newspaper said the new party — tentatively called “National Responsibility” — would win 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The dovish Labor Party would garner 26 seats and the broken Likud Party only 12 seats.

The Palestinian spokesman was careful not to endorse Mr. Sharon, something that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was less bashful about.

Mr. Mubarak telephoned Mr. Sharon yesterday to congratulate him on the new political path he has taken, adding that he looked forward to working with Mr. Sharon in the future.

But some Palestinians had mixed feelings about a likely third term for Mr. Sharon. While they acknowledge him as a leader willing and able to give up West Bank territory, they remain critical of his support for the completion of Israel’s separation barrier, which they decry as a de facto land grab.

Most Palestinians were happy about Mr. Sharon’s decision to leave Gaza, but uncomfortable that it was done unilaterally with a minimum of coordination by the sides. Mr. Sharon promised this week that any future land concessions will be done through negotiation, not unilaterally.

“If he gets re-elected, of course the implications for the Palestinians are enormous, because you are talking about withdrawal from 50 to 60 percent [of the West Bank], not only from cities, but from big areas,” said Said Zeidani, a Ramallah political analyst.

“If he wanted to sit and do nothing, he could have stayed in the Likud. The fact that he decided to leave the Likud indicates that in the last days of his political career, he wants to move things.”

Mr. Sharon and 13 other former Likud Knesset members formally completed their split from the ruling party yesterday by registering their new party under the name “National Responsibility.”

Israeli President Moshe Katsav, meanwhile, announced that the election will be held on March 28.

Hani el Masri, a political commentator at the Al Ayyam newspaper, suggested a parallel between Israel’s political upheaval and the change expected in Palestinian government following legislative elections on Jan. 25.

“Israel has seen a lot of important changes in the last two years. It has started to know the limits of its military power and that it cannot impose greater Israel geographically,” he said.

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