Leading article: Ariel Sharon's unlikely bequest to his nation

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The Israel that emerges from Tuesday's election is one that appears more fragmented and more subtly differentiated than the one over which Ariel Sharon presided. Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, will have his work cut out to form a coherent coalition government. The results for his own party, Kadima, which was the brainchild of Mr Sharon, were frankly disappointing. It will be the largest party in the new Knesset, but by nothing like the margin he and the new party's supporters had hoped.

The complexities of forming a government, however, tend to distort the signal achievements of this election. First, Kadima, a party created only four months before the election by a prime minister who fell into a coma shortly thereafter, showed itself to be a viable political entity and Mr Olmert showed himself a competent leader. He held the party together, waged a coherent campaign and earned the right to assume the post of prime minister in his own name. That is a more than adequate reward for two months' hard work.

Second, this election shattered the mould of Israeli politics as it has existed for nearly 60 years. Likud, the party of the right, the party of security, the party that took one third of Knesset seats three years ago under Mr Sharon's leadership, will now have less than 10 per cent. The political right has split four ways, and the rump of Likud is now little more than another shade of blue in the broad spectrum of Israeli politics. The old left (the Labour Party) and the new centre did best, along with the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu that has become the political voice of the large constituency of Russian-born Israelis.

This suggests that, while security may still head the voters' priorities, concessions on land and a security barrier are seen as a more promising way of obtaining it than refusal to compromise, backed up by force of arms. Not even the victory of Hamas in recent Palestinian elections pushed Israelis back to Likud. This represents not only a sharp change in the public mood, but an endorsement of the vision pursued by Mr Sharon as his career drew to a close.

Finally, there is the obvious point that is too often neglected. The quality of Israel's democracy is remarkable in a neighbourhood where votes that are at once free, fair and peaceful are rare. This means that the results are as accurate a snapshot of Israeli sentiment as election results in any other democracy. It also gives the Israeli government a legitimacy that most other governments in the region do not have and means that it has a mandate that must be taken seriously.

In his victory speech, Mr Olmert renewed his call for talks with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (but not with Hamas), while stressing Israel would be prepared to make further territorial concessions unilaterally if negotiations proved impossible. He has a four-year plan involving Israel evacuating further West Bank settlements while keeping the largest and closest within a new - and permanent - national border. This, of course, would be far from ideal. A negotiated settlement, based on the road map backed by the EU, the UN, the US and Russia, has long been the preferable solution. And it is hard to see how any peace can last without the support of the Palestinians and the underpinning of guarantors and goodwill from outside. But it is also reasonable to ask whether there would have been any movement at all towards a two-state solution without Mr Sharon's bold decision to withdraw from Gaza. He created Kadima - Forward - as the political vehicle for continuing that policy. This election, and the domestic realignment it sealed, is his bequest to Israel. Ehud Olmert's job is to make it work.

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