Likud's trauma opens door to unlikely coalition

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But one certainty is that by depriving Likud of its strongest electoral asset -- himself -- he has dealt his former party a crippling electoral blow.

Mr Sharon's bitter rival Benjamin Netanyahu, or whoever else emerges as the party leader, will have to do with many fewer than the 40 Knesset seats which Mr Sharon delivered in January 2002. Any one of Mr Sharon, Labour's charismatic new leader, Amir Peretz, or the new Likud leader could end up leading the biggest party, of course.

But the latest poll suggests that either Mr Peretz or Mr Sharon have the best chance of doing so, putting their parties each on 28 seats with the possible Likud leader trailing on 18. And it is findings like those which raise the most intriguing of all scenarios -- a Sharon-Peretz coalition.

It seems that neither man could do without the other. Indeed, the sub-text of Mr Sharon's remark last night that he would not form a coalition with people who kept voting against him appeared to be that he would not do a deal with the Likud rump, but he might with Labour.

What would such a coalition mean for chances of a lasting peace with the Palestinians? Can the man who was officially blamed for the 1982 massacres in Sabra and Chatila be yearning to make a lasting peace? Some caution is needed here. For all Mr Sharon's protestations last night that he sees negotiations under the internationally agreed road map and not further "disengagements" from occupied territory as the only way forward, everything about his strategy so far suggests that his preference is to proceed unilaterally, seeking to impose new borders as he sees fit.

However, in a coalition led by him or Mr Peretz, he might not be master of the agenda. Mr Peretz has made clear his strong desire for talks. But some Palestinians fear that even with this dramatic change in Israeli politics, the best they can expect is the kind of "provisional" settlement that would fall divisively below their aspirations.

That said, the (relatively) young man in a hurry and the old man anxious to go down in history as the statesman who brought Israel lasting security is an unpredictable combination.

Mr Sharon would like to go on running the show of course, and may yet do so. But the most interesting aspect of his momentous decision is that if he has to share power, it now looks as if he would rather do it with Mr Peretz than with Mr Netanyahu, a man he can no longer stand.