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Sharon to Draw Final Borders With Palestinians

According to opinion polls in Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bold gamble to call early elections and leave the Likud Party is popular with many Israelis. Mr. Sharon says he wants to draw Israel's final border with Palestinians and build on the momentum he achieved from Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in September.

Opinion polls taken following Ariel Sharon's departure from the Likud Party indicate that his move to form a new centrist party in Israel is popular with a majority of Israeli voters. The polls say Mr. Sharon has a good chance of gaining more than 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. If that happens on Election Day, Mr. Sharon will be guaranteed a third term and given the mandate he says he seeks of drawing Israel's final border with Palestinians. Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University says there is no question, that Mr. Sharon is determined to achieve his goal.

"I think Sharon is determined to be the person that sets the final borders of the state of Israel, and if he has to do that unilaterally, well I think he will try and do it through negotiations, but if he has to do it unilaterally I think he will make an effort at that," he said.

In his breakaway speech from the Likud Party, Ariel Sharon ruled out unilateral pullbacks from Israeli-occupied positions in the West Bank, saying instead he will try and achieve Israel's final border with Palestinians through negotiations that follow the U.S. - backed "road map peace plan" which envisions two states living side-by-side in peace.

Since Mr. Sharon's announcement his political allies such as Finance Minister Ehud Olmert who met with senior Palestinian Authority officials just hours after Mr. Sharon's speech, have echoed the prime minister's remarks, saying Mr. Sharon is committed to territorial concessions towards Palestinians combined with tough action against Palestinian militants.

Senior Palestinian officials like Mahmoud Labadi, the Director General of the Palestinian Legislative Council say they welcome Mr. Sharon's bold political gamble but they still have concerns about just what Mr. Sharon means when he talks about Israel's border with Palestinians.

"Our concern is that he wants to enlarge the space of the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians," said Mr. Labadi. "He wants to continue building settlements and he wants to continue building the wall [security barrier]. He wants to build settlements and continue his policies of aggression and occupation against the Palestinian people. That is the final border. He will not stick to the 1967 border and that means he will annex more Palestinian territory."

While Mr. Sharon is currently riding high in the polls, things could change by Election Day as they have for other Israeli politicians such as Moshe Dayan, who broke away from their parties to form third parties. However, Joshua Teitelbaum of Tel Aviv University says Mr. Sharon's case is different.

"This change is not really staked on personal issues as the previous third parties were. This is really based on a sea change in the Israeli political map, from basically an increasingly pragmatist view to an increasing move to the center. This is both from the left and the right, this move to the center," said Mr. Teitelbaum. "This goes back a couple of years, but the crowning glory is Sharon supporting disengagement from Gaza. This created an entirely new situation and he was way ahead of his Likud Party. Also from the Labor Party there is more support for this kind of thing and he may take people from the Labor Party into this new centrist party."

Joshua Teitelbaum says if that happens, Israel's once powerful Likud Party and its strident voices against further territorial concessions could be marginalized, giving Ariel Sharon the opportunity he says he seeks to try and achieve peace through negotiations.