Israeli politics are about to get a shake-up. Ariel Sharon is announcing today that he will leave the Likud Party and found a new somewhat centrist party. I see this as a great thing for both Israeli politics and for the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Since the beginning of this second intifada, the two major parties in Israeli politics, Labor and Likud, have become characatures of themselves. Labor has shrunk from its responsibilities to be a strong alternative voice for peace and has instead embraced almost unconditional withdrawl as its party platform. On the other side, Likud has continued its never-ending battle between ardent nationalistic hawks like Benjamin Netanyahu and more centrist and reasonable leaders like (gulp) Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Sharon, 77, has been battling self-styled "rebels'' within Likud who opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank last summer as a violation of the party's principles and history. The rebels have been led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who quit the cabinet just before a final vote approving the Gaza withdrawal.
While he has kept his intentions to himself, Mr. Sharon has told intimates that he would like to be the leader who defines, at last, the borders of Israel. He has said that he does not want to be a prime minister whose hands are bound by a party that opposes territorial compromise with the Palestinians and would object to any significant Israeli pullback in the occupied West Bank.
Certainly there is something in this move that is motivated by Sharon's quest for a proud legacy. Every leader wants to be the one who finally brokers a lasting peace. But more importantly, a centrist party in Israel - one that won't back down to the obfuscations of the Palestinian leadership but which will still seek reasonable peace - is desparately needed. Sharon's move to kick settlers out of Gaza this past summer was a brilliant move. He gave the Palestinians what they wanted - Israel out of at least some of their territory - while making the Palestinian leadership prove that it can govern and control its newfound territory. The jury is still out on that part of it.
Sharon's move, along with Labor's unexpected rejection of long time party leader Shimon Peres and subsequent sprint out of the grand coalition government and into the arms of its peacenik left, will force new elections sometime in the next 90 days. In combination with the Palestinian legislative elections set for January, the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace may change dramatically in the near future. With any luck Netanyahu will be isolated on the right fringe with the rest of the unreasonable Likud stalwarts and Amir Peretz, Labor's new lefty leader, will see a similar fate as Peres and a few other Labor moderates jump ship to join Sharon's new party.
I see this all as a good thing for Israel and, potentially, for the Palestinians. 2006 could be a big year.