Israel's new middle way

Sharon has quit Likud to form a new centrist party ahead of elections in early spring.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, rarely one to wait for others to act first, made a series of preemptive political strikes Monday that laid the groundwork for a new centrist party and may cement his position as Israel's premier hawk-made-moderate.

After resigning from the hard-line Likud on Sunday and calling for early elections in March, Mr. Sharon Monday announced the formation of the National Responsibility Party. If successful, Sharon's new party could transcend Israel's right-left divide and claim a mandate for negotiating a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

It is no wonder that some of Israel's newspapers Monday ran single-word headlines such as "Earthquake." In the shifting plate tectonics of Israel's political terrain, the ground is moving hourly, pushed and pulled by a variety of pressures.

Foremost among them are splits in how Israelis view Sharon's disengagement from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank and the question of how - or whether - Israel should approach a possible return to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

"The Likud in its present configuration cannot lead the nation to its goals," said Sharon - the first sitting Israeli prime minister to quit his party - at a press conference to announce the formation of National Responsibility. The Gaza pullout created a "historic opportunity," he said. "I will not allow anyone to squander it."

While Sharon's right-wing opponents within the Likud party have been trying to shake up the system for months, the latest jolt came from the surprise election of a feisty new leader of the left-wing Labor Party, which had been siding with Sharon since late last year.

Now, the abrupt shift to election mode is a window into how fungible the Israeli polity has become as a result of ups and downs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sharon's party is to include a team of moderate Likud members but also some members of Labor - possibly Shimon Peres, who was one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.

With an Israeli mainstream that no longer rejects outright the idea of a Palestinian state - at a UN speech earlier this fall Sharon himself said he embraces the concept - the differences between the moderate left and right have blurred.

"It reflects a broader process in Israeli society as a whole," says Mark Heller, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "Some see the possibility of a real peace agreement with the Palestinians," while others, he says, are simply asking questions of whether there is any way to hold onto territories "at a tolerable cost."

Initially, this merging of left and right agendas grew out of the Palestinian intifada that broke out in September 2000. Israeli leaders from both of the two major parties, normally at loggerheads, declared their agendas to have similar fundamentals: boosting security, fighting terrorism, minimizing Israeli-Palestinian friction. With that, the out-of-power Labor Party was convinced last December to join a unity government under Sharon.

But then came Amir Peretz, who was elected as head of the Labor Party just over a week ago, declaring that he would break the lockstep with Sharon and pull out of the government.

"Peres was too captivated by Sharon, while Peretz represents the opposite view, namely that ... we should act as an opposition and replace Sharon," says Yuli Tamir, a Labor Party legislator who is close to Mr. Peretz. "The Labor Party has lost ... the belief it can win, and now people have a different feeling. The Likud feels for the first time they are in danger."

Indeed, Sharon's move to dissolve the Knesset Monday was aimed at staying a step ahead of Peretz, who had planned to submit a bill Monday to do the same.

Sharon's shift was not wholly dictated by Peretz's decision, but has been months in the making. Ever since he put his disengagement idea into action earlier this year, Sharon faced upheaval from many hard-line ideologues in the Likud.

Several prominent Likud figures deserted Sharon and worked to oppose disengagement, but none of them dealt as great a blow as the 11th-hour departure of his finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu, who served as premier from 1996 to 1999, tried to wrest the Likud leadership from Sharon just after the completion of the disengagement plan in September and failed. His popularity endures with some constituencies, particularly the settlers.

In recent Israeli history, several centrist parties have proved to be one-hit wonders, making a splash in one election but bombing out in the next. Sharon may have difficulties persuading young politicians that his National Responsibility Party won't be ephemeral. But for Sharon, the longevity of the party may not matter.

"Sharon doesn't care if this is a one-term party," says Ethan Dor-Shav, a political analyst and associate fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center.

"He doesn't need to run again, and it's going to be stated quite clearly that this will be a last time for him," he says, "and that he will reach a final status agreement with the Palestinian Authority, one that will determine borders, within the next four years."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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