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Sharon Redraws Israel's Political Map


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to call early elections and quit his ruling Likud party has reshaped Israeli politics.

It took just one week for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to redraw the old political map in Israel. For decades, Israeli politics have been shaped by deep divisions over the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, captured during the Six Day War in 1967.

Sharon co-founded the right-wing Likud party 30 years ago, with the aim of tightening Israel's grip on those territories and settling Jews in all the biblical Land of Israel. The Israeli left sought territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

But Mr. Sharon did an about-face when he defied the Likud and pulled Israel out of Gaza in August, dismantling 21 Jewish settlements there and four more in the northern West Bank. Now, he has gone a step further, quitting the Likud and forming a moderate, centrist party that has broad appeal.

Polls show Mr. Sharon winning early elections in March by a landslide. "Everybody in Israel seems to agree with what Ariel Sharon is saying," said Israeli analyst Tom Gumpbel. Well, not everybody, but polls indicate that Mr. Sharon's new Forward Party would win about 34 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel's parliament, compared with just 13 seats for the Likud.

Mr. Gumpbel says most Israelis have abandoned the Likud's ideology of a greater Israel. "What's happening is that the right has imploded on itself, and what you're seeing is that the Likud is really disintegrating," he noted.

Right-wing analyst Charlie Levine says the Likud is better off without Mr. Sharon, and he says the party has not imploded. "More accurately, I would say, it was hijacked by Ariel Sharon, who took the people's votes, and then did opposite of what they asked him and insisted that he do. That's an unacceptable situation," he said.

But many Israelis believe that the Likud's ideology of holding on to the West Bank and its more than two million Palestinians, is a recipe for endless conflict.

Now that Israel has gone through the trauma of the Gaza pullout, opinion polls indicate the public appears ready to follow Mr. Sharon on what is expected to be the next step: further withdrawals from parts of the West Bank.

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