Leading article: This bold gamble deserves to pay off

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon has sprung many a surprise in his 77 years on this earth. But his decision to couple his request for new elections with his resignation from the Likud Party must count among the greatest about-turns of our times.

The most immediate consequence is that when Mr Sharon campaigns for re-election next March, it will not be as head of Likud, but as leader of a new centrist party or bloc. He has severed his ties with the right-wing party he helped to found 30 years ago, and is looking to forge a new national consensus. The longer-term consequence will be the comprehensive realignment of Israeli politics. This could be no bad thing.

For several years now, Israeli politics and public opinion have been out of kilter - and the evolution of Mr Sharon's approach to national security is one reason why. The champion of the settlements, the hardliner who demonstratively walked up Temple Mount, triggering the second Palestinian intifada, has now initiated, led and completed Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

Each time, Mr Sharon accurately gauged the complexion of Israeli opinion. The more amenable he became to peace-making, however, the more he left his party behind. He secured parliamentary backing for the Gaza withdrawal despite, not because of, Likud. He had to engage in convoluted political manoeuvres just to keep the withdrawal in play. When the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, left the government in protest, Likud had effectively split. When Shimon Peres then lost the leadership of the Labour party, as he did last week, Mr Sharon was marooned.

Yet Mr Sharon clearly feels that he has work still to do. And his popularity ratings, holding up at more than 60 per cent, suggest that a majority of Israeli voters agree. His bold gamble is that this is a centrist majority, a majority that supports ceding land for peace so long as security considerations are paramount - and that this majority is in search of a leader.

There can be no doubting Mr Sharon's toughness or his courage. From his political beginnings as a somewhat brutish hardliner, associated abroad with the massacres at the south Lebanon refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, he has emerged as a leader of stature and staying power. His progress from warmonger to peace-maker bears comparison with that of Menachem Begin, the one-time terrorist who signed Israel's peace treaty with Egypt. It also confirms once again that past warriors are sometimes the best people to negotiate peace agreements and "sell" them to their people.

The future configuration of Israel's politics is now as uncertain as at almost any time in the country's history. It is not clear whether Likud will survive as a major party or shrink into a rump that is further to the right. It is not clear either that the party Mr Sharon intends to form will attract more than minority support. But if it were to attract voters from Labour under its new populist leader, where would this leave the left? And what of the tiny parties that, thanks to the electoral system, enjoy bargaining power out of all proportion to their support? Perhaps, if change is in the air, the bar should be set a little higher for representation in parliament?

Above and beyond all the politicking, of course, is the peace process and its future. With Palestinian elections pending and the Israeli political scene in such flux, however, any progress will inevitably be stalled until the spring. The hope must be that, once new governments are in place, the impetus for peace will be renewed. Four years ago, this would have been inconceivable, but now it should be said: Mr Sharon's re-election as the leader of Israel's political centre may now offer the prospect of lasting Middle East peace.