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POLITICAL EARTHQUAKE ROCKS ISRAEL

PM Sharon: 'I'm Quitting Likud, Forming New Party & Going To Early Election'

State President Katzav: 'The State Interest Is To Hold Early Election As Soon As Possible'

Bibi Netanyahu Considered Frontrunner For Likud Leadership, But Some Five Other Candidates Are In The Running

PM Ariel Sharon

Although expected, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's resignation has sent shock waves through the Jewish state. In Jerusalem, Sharon informed state President that he had lost his parliamentary majority, was quitting the ruling Likud party and forming a new centrist party to run in the early election. Election- day is expected in March. The Likud accused Sharon of violating its 'Land of Israel' ideology and eventually forced Sharon's resignation and the race is now on for his successor as party leader.

Israelis awakened to a new political reality this morning. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has triggered the 'Big Bang' in Israel's political constellation. Sharon was fed up with the so-called Likud 'rebels' who threaten to shackle his political moves, such as the recent unilateral evacuation of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. So, hardliner Sharon, the former champion of the settlement movement went to state President Moshe Katzav to say: 'I can no longer administer the state's affairs because I no longer command a majority in the Knesset'. The step was also precipitated by newly elected Labor leader Amir Peretz, who decided to pull the party's 8 cabinet ministers out of the Sharon cabinet. Sharon could probably have stayed on to lead the Likud to victory in the upcoming election, if he had accepted the party's 'Land of Israel' ideology that rejects a territorial compromise for a Palestinian state on the West Bank. The Prime Minister has made clear he is ready for painful concessions and that he will negotiate the Roadmap for a Palestinian state, if the Palestinians disarm the terrorists.

The ball now passes to state President Moshe Katzav. Israeli law requires that he meet with the representatives of all Knesset factions to ascertain if there is an alternative who could muster the 61 seat majority required to form a new government without an election. Twenty-one days is allotted for this process and it is unlikely that any viable candidate will emerge. After that, elections are to be held within another 90 days, probably sometime in March. However, the Likud and several other parties are challenging the President's position that the early election must be held as soon as possible. They believe that Sharon's new party will lose altitude as time goes on.

The National Responsibility: That's the name of Sharon's new party. It is the outcome of the Prime Minister's move from the right wing Likud to right of center on Israel's political map. It has the potential of creating a new critical mass with the formation of a political force for the policy that Sharon succeeded in ramming down the Likud's throat. Not that Sharon has now undergone a transformation into a soft touch when it comes to Palestinian terrorism or demands. The Prime Minister seems to be saying that if the Palestinians are willing to disarm the terrorists and negotiate the Roadmap, fine. If not, Israel will act unilaterally to safeguard her vital interests. This differs from the Likud which in effect, opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state while Labor feels the quicker a Palestinian state, the better for Israel. Throughout the Oslo process this has been perceived by the Israeli public as the Likud in favor of 'clobbering' the Palestinians whereas Labor preferred 'to coddle' Yasser Arafat. This resulted in an Israeli policy of absorbing terrorism and negotiating peace at the same time. The fact that Sharon, the darling of the far right, has now moved close to center is then the key to this 'Big Bang'. His new party will offer a new approach on coping with the Palestinian issue and if possible, to demarcate Israel's eastern border on the West Bank. At the same time, Sharon says he will carry on a relentless counter- terror campaign and he will not carry out any more unilateral evacuations.

Min. Silvan Shalom | MK Bibi Netanyahu

Likud: In temporary disarray, that's about the only way to describe the Likud after Sharon's departure. At an urgent session of Knesset caucus, interim party leader Zachi Hanegbi stressed the need for the electing of a new party leader to replace Sharon. There is no shortage of candidates starting with former prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu and the current foreign minister, Silvan Shalom. Education Minister Limor Livnat, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and MK Uzi Landau are also in the running. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was reportedly a candidate but he now says he is considering joining Sharon. The Prime Minister has reportedly promised Mofaz to stay on as defense minister if Sharon forms the next government. Although the charismatic Netanyahu is considered to be front-runner, Silvan Shalom could mount a tough campaign. Shalom, who has just returned from a 'visiting his roots' tour of Tunisia could be the Likud's Sepharadi answer to Labor's new 'Moroccan' leader Amir Peretz. Netanyahu may be in for a rough ride in traditional Likud development towns where the former Finance Minister is blamed for slashing their welfare payments. In any case, with Sharon's departure, the Likud will be perceived as swinging to the extreme right. Far right leader MK Effie Eitam has called on the Likud to form a strong right wing coalition to counter Sharon.

Labor: this traditional left-wing party has lost its socialist underpinnings over the years. There is no question that Amir Peretz will push the party back to a clear-cut stance on a strong welfare state that was eroded in recent years. As for the Palestinian issue, Peretz is trying to alter his super-dove image by declaring that he opposes the return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel and that Jerusalem must remain the eternal unified capital of Israel. Peretz also told the Labor central committee that it was not true that he had supported the Geneva Accords that referred to wide-scale Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. But the election of Peretz, who is considered to be an authentic Sepharadi representative, has excited the Sepharadi community as never before. Many Sepharadi Israelis have long standing grievances against, what they call the elitist Ashkenazi leadership of Labor and traditionally vote Likud. The election of Amir Peretz could open the door to many of them voting Labor. This could also be a factor in the 'Big Bang' - Israel's new political alignment.

David Essing

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