Sharon's decision to form new party causes earthquake in Israeli politics

Ariel Sharon's final break with Israel's hard-liners instantly redrew the political map, raising expectations that he will end the decades-old deadlock between hawks and doves and create strong parliamentary backing for peace moves with the Palestinians.

Sharon's decision to leave the Likud and create a new centrist party will give mainstream Israelis _ who support peace moves but want a leader with strong security credentials _ the rare option of voting for a major party that addresses both their concerns.

The prime minister repeatedly stressed this "peace with security" formula when he announced his plans Monday night. "I am prepared to make painful concessions. But I will not make a concession that harms Israel's security or the security of its citizens," he said.

&to=' target=_blank>Sharon, the most popular politician in the country, has already gained considerable support, persuading at least a dozen lawmakers to leave the comfortable framework of the Likud and risk their political careers with him. Recent polls showed a new Sharon party getting strong enough support to propel him back to the prime minister's office.

Those polls showed a Sharon-led Likud getting even more support. But he lost control of his increasingly hardline party as he followed through with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and dismantle Israeli settlements there over the summer.

Angry Likud rebels attempted to bring down their own government and reportedly sabotaged Sharon's microphone as he tried to address a recent party gathering. Even his party whip and the parliament speaker worked against him.

In the absence of Sharon and his moderate allies, the hardline rebels will likely take over Likud, marginalizing the party as they push it further out of Israel's mainstream. The split will also weaken the West Bank settlers, who expertly harnessed Likud's strength over the past three decades to exert a power over Israeli policies far in excess of their numbers.

Sharon's departure from Likud capped a startling political transformation for the premier, who just a few years ago exhorted Israelis to seize West Bank hilltops and carped at Israeli leaders' efforts to reach a peace deal with the &to=' target=_blank>Palestinians.

It also gave hope to an Israeli peace movement discredited by five years of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.

As head of a new party, Sharon will be free to pursue peace moves with the Palestinians and form a stable coalition with the Labor Party, which itself was invigorated with the election of charismatic union leader Amir Peretz as party chief.

"The camp that wants to reach negotiations just got bigger," said Labor lawmaker Yuli Tamir.

Even Palestinians greeted the events with a rare optimism.

"I hope that when the dust settles, we will have a partner in Israel to go toward the end game, toward the end of conflict, toward a final arrangement," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Sharon's decision was not without risk.

Likud has a well-organized party machine built over three decades, with thousands of party members across the country willing to canvass neighborhoods and to campaign for its candidates. Sharon will have only a few months to cobble together the barest threads of a grass-roots organization, and his most trusted organizer, his son Omri, pleaded guilty last week to corruption charges related to illegal fund-raising.

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