Just how big is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bid to create a new centrist party after splitting last weekend from the Likud Party that he founded in 1973?
Well, it's being equated to a political earthquake - "the tectonic plates of Israeli politics shifting ... it's huge," summed up one prominent Jerusalem correspondent. "This will reshape Israeli politics in a way that's not been seen for decades, with big implications for the peace process and for the direction of any peace process."
This was Sharon's only option after the Labor Party, under the direction of its new leader, Amir Peretz, decided to withdraw from the coalition government it formed with Sharon in January in order to support the Gaza pullout - a pullout that was strongly opposed by much of Sharon's Likud Party.
So when the coalition government collapsed, the 77-year-old P.M. was left without a base of support in the Knesset.
What he does have going for him is the force of his own charismatic personality and that he is still held in high esteem by much of the Israeli public. This is what he's counting on to keep him in power as he reaches out for the support of prominent moderates from both Likud and Labor in getting his new party together in time for elections, probably in mid-March.
It's ironic that Sharon's old views - the hard-line, anti-Arab, pro-Israeli settlement views that led to the formation of Likud - are the very views he's now repudiating in his bid for peace. Sharon's election will be contested on the right by Likud, likely headed by hard liner Benjamin Netanyahu, and on the left by Labor's Peretz. The latter is in basic agreement with Sharon on the peace process, but has sharp differences on domestic issues, which are no small matter in Israeli politics.
But Sharon's strength comes from the fact that, because of his heroic, tough-as-nails past, he is most trusted by the Israeli people to pursue peace without jeopardizing essential security concerns. Early polls actually show him doing quite well as a third-party candidate.
Moreover, aides close to him have been quoted as saying that if Sharon should win, he will move well beyond the Gaza pullout and call for the withdrawal of isolated Jewish settlements on the West Bank. This would mark a revolutionary change in Israeli policy that would further exacerbate Sharon's relations with Likud, but would strengthen his hand in the peace process and put more pressure than ever on the Palestinians to make concessions of their own.
For better or for worse, the future of the Mideast peace process will probably be decided over the next several months as the impact of the aftershocks of Israel's political earthquake are fully felt.
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