Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has decided to quit his Likud Party and set up a new party for upcoming general elections, Army Radio reported late Sunday.
Earlier, the moderate Labor Party voted to leave Sharon's coalition, already weakened by an internal Likud rift over Israel's pullout from Gaza. Setting up a new party would scramble the political picture for the early election, set tentatively for March.
While I believe that Sharon will someday have to face justice for the war crimes of Sabra and Shatila, it is undeniably true that he has demonstrated true leadership since ascension to Prime Minister (though of course the circumstances of that ascensioin itself are another black mark).
It is astounding how this "Settler among Settlers" has been the one who withdrew from Gaza. The Wall between Israel and the West Bank has been largely a success and surprisingly responsive to outside oversight to ensure that it stays as fair as possible. And now, this resignation from Likud, which I think bodes potentially well indeed for a moderate center party in Israeli politics.
There is hope indeed. And Sharon deserves a lot of credit.
UPDATE: more details - Sharon's goal is to dissolve the present Parliament:
In a bold gamble, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday asked Israel's president to dissolve parliament, pushing for a quick March election just hours after deciding to leave his hardline Likud Party and form a new centrist party.
Sharon's decision to leave Likud sent shock waves through Israel, redrawing the political map, finalizing his transformation from hardliner to moderate and boosting prospects of progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians.
His confidants say Sharon felt Likud hardliners, who tried to block this summer's Gaza pullout, were imposing too many constraints and would prevent future peace moves. Palestinian officials expressed hope Monday that the political upheaval in Israel would bring them closer to a final peace deal.
The dramatic events began with Sharon's decision late Sunday, after a weekend of agonizing, to leave the party he helped found in 1973. On Monday morning, Sharon asked President Moshe Katsav to dissolve parliament, a step that would move the vote to the beginning of March, or eight months ahead of schedule. Katsav said he would weigh the request and decide quickly, after consulting with leaders of other parties.
Midday Monday, Sharon met at his office with 11 breakaway Likud legislators, expected to form the core of the new party, reportedly to be called "National Responsibility."
And, the tantalizing tidbit that the new party, tentatively called "National Responsibility", might even include Shimon Peres!
Among those expected to follow Sharon out of Likud are Vice Premier Ehud Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, two top academics and even ousted Labor leader Shimon Peres were mentioned as possibilities. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was still undecided Monday.
Alas, Israeli parliamentary politics don't have much analogue to US politics. Here, independent candidates at best have neutral effect (Perot) or profoundly damaging (Nader).