Changes in the guard

November 22, 2005

The tectonic plates under Israel's political establishment are shifting. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon provided the latest evidence with his announcement yesterday that he is leaving the Likud, the leading conservative party that he helped form, to establish a new centrist party. The recent ousting of Shimon Peres as the veteran leader of the Labor Party doesn't quite match the significance of Mr. Sharon's departure, but both illustrate the fault lines in Israeli society that are leading to a changing of the political old guard. Mr. Sharon's decision to quit the Likud will likely result in new parliamentary elections in March.

Mr. Sharon, 77, wants to continue as Israel's prime minister. His popularity among Israelis is high. But his decision to remove Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip - an astonishing move for one of Israel's renowned generals, a hawk and founder of the settler movement - fractured the Likud. He has been governing not with a majority of his party, but in coalition with the dovish Labor Party, formerly led by the 82-year-old Mr. Peres. Mr. Peres' political profile for more than a decade has been as a champion of the peace process, which imploded with the onset of the Palestinian uprising in 2000. And in an odd twist of political fates, Mr. Sharon, who made his reputation on the battlefield, became the Israeli leader primed to bring about a peaceful resolution of Israel's 38-year occupation of Palestinian territory.

The changing political status of these two men represents Israel at a crossroads. The Labor Party, associated in recent times with the peace process, is now headed by a veteran union leader concerned more with the economic and social problems of the country's poor and working classes. The Likud Mr. Sharon has left wants nothing to do with territorial compromises with the Palestinians, a critical component of any deal that would result from the U.S.-backed road map for peace. But neither party has produced a crop of new leaders with the promise, tenacity and commitment to service required to carry Israel through the next 50 years and broker the deal needed to end years of enmity with the Palestinians.

The political conversation doesn't turn on the word peace any more; it turns on disengagement, on a permanent separation from the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon may indeed be the strongman best able to bring about such a deal, but the Israeli electorate will have to make that decision. And if not him, who?

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