Mr. Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, is known as “the bulldozer.” The nickname is the result of his willingness to run over obstacles that he has encountered throughout his career. Recently, however, Mr. Sharon has demonstrated an agility and deftness that is most un-bulldozer-like. After engineering the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza earlier this year, the prime minister last week quit the Likud Party he helped found and formed a new center party to contest elections next year. These are bold moves that could reshape Israeli politics — and perhaps lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Mr. Sharon’s decision to bolt Likud was the product of rising frustration with the party. The prime minister says he is ready to make a genuine peace with Palestinians — with the accent on “genuine” — but he has been challenged by hardliners on his right who are angered by his readiness to abandon the Gaza settlements. Leading the charge is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long chafed under Mr. Sharon’s leadership.
At the same time, the left-leaning Labor Party, which had joined Mr. Sharon’s government, has new leadership of its own. Mr. Amir Peretz, a union leader, defeated former party head Shimon Peres and immediately took the party out of Mr. Sharon’s government. That move isolated the prime minister within his own government and prompted Mr. Sharon’s decision to quit the party.
Liberated, he has formed a new party, National Responsibility, that he calls a “liberal movement for Israel.” He then asked President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the Knesset, the parliament, so the prime minister could call a general election scheduled for March 28. Mr. Katsav obliged.
The gamble may pay off. National Responsibility has already won the support of one-third of Likud parliamentarians, one former Labor minister and a number of prominent academics and security officials who have said they will join. Mr. Peres, Mr. Sharon’s partner in the previous government, has not yet joined the new party despite the prime minister’s entreaties. Without committing to leaving Labor, Mr. Peres has said the two men will continue to work together.
Even without Mr. Peres, Mr. Sharon’s new party has passed one crucial threshold. By winning over one-third of the Likud members, the new party qualified for state election funding for each parliamentarian as well as valuable election-broadcast time slots on TV and radio.
Equally important, the party is popular. One poll shows National Responsibility could win more than one-quarter of the seats in the 120-member Knesset. Labor trails behind, while Likud could be the biggest loser, falling from 40 seats to 12. Four months away from a vote, the prediction of results is premature, but recent polls suggest that Mr. Sharon’s gambit is not sheer folly.
There are problems, however. Mr. Sharon has been dogged by scandal. His son has been charged with violating election finance laws and is rumored to be involved in influence peddling. Mr. Netanyahu will use that to tar the prime minister. Before the former prime minister can focus on the incumbent, however, he must win Likud party elections in December. Although he is the front-runner, the fight promises to be a bitter one.
Mr. Sharon’s goal is a permanent, secure peace. His tough record on security issues will stand him in good stead with the majority of Israeli citizens unnerved by years of conflict with extremists. As always, he has demanded the dismantling of terrorist organizations, but he also claims to be committed to the two-state solution laid out in the international “road map” for peace in the region. According to Mr. Sharon, he is even ready to take the controversial step of dismantling some settlements on the West Bank, a move likely to be even more controversial than the withdrawal of the Gaza Strip outposts.
As a newborn centrist, Mr. Sharon is also putting emphasis on reducing poverty. This strategy is designed to deprive Mr. Peretz, a passionate campaigner who is expected to energize Labor, of some of his support. If Mr. Sharon can stake out the center, he can transform his country’s politics. Freed from the shackles of the right, he may then be able to break the logjam in Israel and negotiate a real peace with Palestinians.
At least that is the strategy. The only uncertainty is whether the Palestinians are prepared to join an Israeli prime minister genuinely committed to peace. A victory by Mr. Sharon will provide the test.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.