Sharon says goodbye to party he helped create three decades ago

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said goodbye to the party he helped create more than three decades ago and set out to lead a new, centrist faction, pledging to work for a peace deal with the Palestinians and address Israel’s social and economic ills. At a press conference last night, Sharon ruled out more unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank and said he remains committed to the internationally backed “road map” plan, which calls for a negotiated peace deal culminating in a Palestinian state.

“There is no additional disengagement plan,” he told a nationally televised news conference, referring to Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements last summer. “There is the road map.”

Sharon, however acknowledged that further settlements would be dismantled as part of future a negotiated peace treaty with the Palestinians.

“When we get to the final stage of the road map, when we get to (defining) the permanent borders of the state of Israel, one could assume that some of the settlements will not be able to remain there,” he said.

He reiterated that Israel would hold on to major settlement blocs in the West Bank where most of Israel’s 235,000 settlers live, and demanded that Palestinians disarm militant groups before progress could be made on the road map.

Polls published over the weekend indicated that Sharon, Israel’s most popular politician, could marshal enough support to return to the prime minister’s seat for a third term at the head of a moderate coalition. He dismissed a journalist’s question asking if he would be prepared to be a junior partner should a post-election alliance be dominated by Likud or Labour.

“I intend to win the election, so the question is unlikely to arise,” he said.

Palestinians saw the political upheaval in Israel as perhaps giving a boost to peacemaking.

“I hope that when the dust settles, we will have a partner in Israel to go toward ... a final arrangement,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that while some issues may be sidelined or shelved during the election period, but that he hopes “that these elections will go smoothly and we can get back to pressing the parties on the peace process.”

Sharon said the Gaza pullout created a historic opportunity, to get back on the path to peace. “I will not allow anyone to squander it,” he said.

Sharon set dramatic events in motion on Sunday night with his decision to leave the Likud Party he co-founded in 1973, with a dream of keeping the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem – lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

His move to scale back that dream and pull Israel out of Gaza ignited internal rebellion by former allies wedded to the original vision. They failed to block the withdrawal, but seeking revenge for Sharon’s perceived treachery, fought him in parliament at every opportunity.

Although Sharon has now thrown off the constraints of the Likud hawks, peacemaking in the short term will be put on hold by Israel’s elections and January 25 balloting for the Palestinian parliament.

Yesterday, Sharon asked President Moshe Katsav to dissolve parliament and move elections to early March from their scheduled November date.

Katsav has yet to say whether he will disband the legislature or let parliament dissolve itself – an option some politicians favour because it could take longer, buying them time to campaign.

While awaiting his decision, the assembly voted to disband yesterday, but needs to vote three more times to bring about early elections.

Sharon’s push for March elections enjoys the support of new Labour leader Amir Peretz, who heads the second-largest party in the parliament.

Labour voted on Sunday to pull out of Sharon’s government, which it joined last year to ensure implementation of the Gaza pullout. Peretz – a political dove who want to increase social spending – has said he would consider rejoining a coalition with Sharon under the right conditions, reports the AP. I.L.

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