Sharon risks career to follow peace plan

In `political earthquake,' Israeli premier bolts from Likud, calls for early elections


JERUSALEM -- Appearing on Israeli television last night to announce his decision to abandon the right-wing Likud Party he helped found more than 30 years ago and create a new centrist party, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appeared upbeat and cheerful, like a man who had suddenly been liberated - which, in fact, he had.

Life within the Likud Party had become one of "incessant difficulties and incessant obstacles," he said, after seeing his political agenda blocked by party members who bitterly opposed his decision to withdraw settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in the summer.

"Staying in the Likud means wasting time in political struggles rather than acting on behalf of the state," Sharon said.

So at age 77, the former general who had built a reputation for daring wartime exploits and hawkish, uncompromising politics, has decided to go on one more risky adventure by forming what he termed a "liberal party" dedicated to following the U.S.-backed "road map" toward a final peace settlement with the Palestinians.

In a day filled with dramatic political developments, Sharon in the morning asked Israel's president to dissolve parliament and prepare the country for early elections. By the middle of the day, Sharon quit the Likud. By last night, the Knesset had taken the first steps to dissolve itself, as Sharon wished. President Moshe Katsav announced that elections would be held no later than March 28.

Sharon's decision to strike out on his own was described by Israeli commentators as a "political earthquake" or "big bang" that would reshape the political landscape as Sharon shuns traditional political forces on the left and right to create a moderate movement dedicated, Sharon said, to Israeli's national interests.

"We are embarking on a new path - one which will provide Israel with genuine hope for stability, national responsibility, personal security, stable government, economic prosperity, tranquillity and peace," Sharon said. "This is what the people of Israel need today. This is why I was elected, and I open myself up to the judgment of the voters."

Sharon is taking a gamble by forming a new party that lacks the resources of the Likud and the center-left Labor Party. Historically, hastily formed political parties like Sharon's have not fared well in national elections.

More worrying for Sharon is the corruption scandal surrounding his family. One of his sons, Omri, pleaded guilty this month to providing false testimony and falsifying documents in a corruption case related to political contributions for Sharon's bid to win the Likud leadership in 1999.

But Sharon is betting on his huge popularity in Israel - where he is viewed as a larger-than-life celebrated general, master builder of settlements and one of Israel's shrewdest politicians - to carry him to a third term as prime minister.

"I have served the State of Israel for over 60 years. I know its fields, borders, even its odors - and primarily I know and love the citizens of this country," he said.

Still, Sharon's political intentions remain murky, especially on the question of a final settlement with the Palestinians.

"Nobody knows what's in his hat. The prime minister has been rather successful hiding his intentions," said Itzhak Galnoor, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

It was Sharon, the person who did more than anyone else to create Jewish settlements in Gaza, who this year surprised the country by announcing the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. And it is Sharon, one of the co-founders of the Likud, who is putting the party's future in question.

At last night's news conference, Sharon gave nothing away, saying, that there would be no unilateral withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank. Instead, his party would embrace the Mideast "road map."

"There is no additional disengagement plan," he said. "There is the road map."

Among Palestinians, who will hold their own parliamentary elections Jan. 25, Israel's political developments were being watched closely, and they generated hopes that Sharon's move could lead to a breakthrough in peace talks.

"What I'm witnessing is an eruption of a political volcano in Israel," said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator. "It's a restructuring of Israel's politics. All I can hope for is that at the end of the day ... we will have a partner in Israel to go with us to the end game, to the end conflict."

When the next elections are held, most likely in mid-March, it will be a three-way contest. On the left will be the Labor Party now led by Amir Peretz, a charismatic trade union leader. On the right, the Likud will be under a leader to be picked next month, perhaps Sharon's rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Occupying the center will be Sharon's new party, National Responsibility. Sharon met yesterday with 10 of his first recruits from the Likud Party. He is also wooing members of Labor.

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