- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2005

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday made official his decision to abandon Likud and establish a new political party ahead of elections in March — a move that would give him more leeway to pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The announcement, which Mr. Sharon made at the end of a day of high political drama, was seen by many as a gamble aimed at bringing to power a center-left coalition after the early vote.

The primary goal of his new “National Responsibility” party, he said, would be “to lay the foundation for a peace agreement wherein the country’s permanent borders will be determined, while insisting on the dismantling of terrorist organizations.”

Mr. Sharon’s decision completes a split in the ruling Likud Party set in motion nearly two years ago when he outlined plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The political upheaval is likely to redraw Israel’s political map for the first time in more than 30 years.

In a sign of what many Israeli commentators alternately termed the “earthquake” or “big bang,” prominent politicians from both Likud and the rival Labor Party were struggling to decide whether to follow Mr. Sharon’s lead into uncharted political territory.

The prime minister said he had made his decision Sunday evening, ending weeks of public uncertainty. His hand was forced when the newly elected Labor leader Amir Peretz persuaded his party to quit the government coalition, leaving Mr. Sharon without a working majority in parliament.

During a nationally televised press conference from his Jerusalem office, Mr. Sharon appeared sprightly and confident, often rapping the dais to punctuate a point.

He explained that even if he had been re-elected for a third term as head of Likud, his agenda would have become mired in petty politics.

“Disengagement gave us a historic opportunity, and I don’t intend to allow anyone to squander it,” he said.

Mr. Sharon reiterated his commitment to advancing the U.S.-sponsored “road map” peace plan, which envisions a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza after militant groups are disbanded.

Although the road map has been in a deep freeze for more than two years, observers said Mr. Sharon’s actions indicated that he is serious about a new push for peace if re-elected.

“The success of the disengagement gave him a tremendous amount of energy. He wants to finish the job,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“I think he has reached a stage in his life where he wants to act like a statesman,” Mr. Ezrahi said. “Just to be the head of the Likud is not enough.”

A poll published on the Ha’aretz newspaper’s Internet site suggested that Mr. Sharon’s new political enterprise would begin the election campaign as the favorite to become the largest party in the next parliament.

About 37 percent of those polled backed Mr. Sharon as the next prime minister; 22 percent favored Mr. Peretz; and 15 percent opted for whoever succeeds Mr. Sharon as Likud chairman.

Mr. Sharon has convinced as many as 14 of Likud’s 40 parliament members to follow him, including Finance Minister Ehud Olmert and at least two other Cabinet ministers.

But some prominent backers of his disengagement plan, such as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, announced their decisions to remain in Likud.

Mr. Sharon’s resignation from the party, which has led Israeli governments for 20 of the past 28 years, leaves Likud with as many as seven candidates hoping to become the next chairman. Polls have shown former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be the early favorite.

Mr. Sharon’s departure “marks a propensity to isolate the settlers and the Likud die-hards,” Mr. Ezrahi said.

“The general trend is that the costs of the occupation and maintaining the settlements, and sustaining a policy of confrontation with the Palestinians was becoming increasingly intolerable to the Israel public,” he said.

If victorious in elections, Mr. Sharon is likely to invite Labor into a coalition that would seek a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

But the upset victory of Mr. Peretz in a Labor primary this month alienated several senior party figures, prompting speculation that long-time leaders such as Shimon Peres may end up in Mr. Sharon’s new party.

“Never in Israeli history has there been this kind of fluidity before an election,” said Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “The swing vote is huge. The party structures have been shattered.”

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