Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel offered up several tantalizing morsels yesterday to explain his decision to dump the Likud Party. He said he wants to "lay the foundation" toward "the permanent borders of the state." That, of course, hints that he is willing to engage in the territorial compromise necessary for achieving peace with the Palestinians, something members of the right wing of Likud can't get their heads around. He said he has "no intention of allowing anyone to miss" the "historic opportunity" brought by Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last summer. Again, another hint at territorial compromise.
But perhaps his most telling comment was that Likud, which Mr. Sharon himself helped create, "is unable to lead Israel toward its national goals." It is astounding to hear those words coming from the man who has embodied Likud for the past three decades. But while Likud has stayed largely the same in those decades, Mr. Sharon has evolved, like the nation he has helped to shape.
In the 1950's, he trained and led the commandos who were so quick and deadly at reprisals. In 1973, he led the crossing of the Suez Canal that helped end the Yom Kippur War. In 1982, he led Israel's invasion of Lebanon, and later was found indirectly responsible - by an Israeli commission of inquiry - for the massacre by Christian militiamen of Palestinians in two refugee camps. In 2000, he detonated the Palestinian intifada when, surrounded by hundreds of policemen and soldiers, he visited the plateau in Jerusalem that the Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and the Jews call the Temple Mount.
Yet in 2005, Mr. Sharon, the architect of Israel's settlement policy, did what no other Israeli leader has ever done: in withdrawing from the desert Israel seized 38 years ago, Mr. Sharon unilaterally ceded land that Palestinians claim for their future state. Mr. Sharon was resolute in the face of condemnation from right-wing members of Likud, and the Gaza withdrawal is what brought Mr. Sharon to the podium yesterday for that press conference, in which he announced to the world his disengagement from Likud. Alongside the election of Amir Peretz as the new leader of the Labor Party, the events of the last two weeks have brought Israelis to a stark choice about their country's direction.
The coming national elections will bring many issues into relief. Will the country capitalize on the Gaza withdrawal to forge ahead in peace talks with the Palestinians? Will Israel finally talk seriously about abandoning the settlements in the West Bank, which it must leave for a Palestinian state - and peace - to be a realistic outcome?
Polls say Mr. Sharon has popular good will in Israel today, and without the baggage of Likud he certainly has the credibility to push Israel in the direction it needs to go. Whether he chooses to do so remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. Mr. Sharon couldn't lead Israel toward its national goals as long as he embodied Likud.