With his dramatic decision to bolt the right-of-center Likud Party he co-founded in 1973, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose the riskiest of the difficult options open to him after his ruling coalition fell apart this week.
His choice has strong overtones of the recent Gaza pullout, in which Sharon, an architect of the settlement movement, turned around and ordered settlements removed.
First he builds it. Then he tears it down. You could call it Sharon's leitmotif.
Sharon's main political problem is that while he is broadly popular in Israel, there is a hard-line faction within his party that feels betrayed by the Gaza pullout and has obstructed Sharon's ability to govern.
The unprecedented events playing out this week are the culmination of the months of tension between Sharon and his own party.
Sharon's flight from the Likud comes as a shock because there is a whole generation of Israelis who do not know an Israel without the party, said Israeli author and political commentator Tom Segev. "Now that it is broken up it is a dramatic moment. It's an earthquake, a tsunami, all of those things. And it has an element of daddy leaving home," Segev said.
Never one to play defense, the man nicknamed "the bulldozer" charged ahead with a beaming smile, sweeping aside the traditional rules of the game by founding a new, centrist "National Responsibility" party that will test the sentiments of the Israeli electorate in snap elections that will take place no later than mid-March.
Sharon's new party is expected to be made up of about a dozen breakaway members of Likud, including prominent Finance Minister Ehud Olmert. But the new party's aim is to attract members from the left and center as well, including possibly former Labor Party leader and prominent statesman Shimon Peres.
"I think the party which Mr. Sharon is setting up is a short-term proposition," said a veteran Likud member who insisted on anonymity because he has not decided whether to jump ship with Sharon. "This will not be a real party. There are some large figures who will join him from Likud but for the most part these are people with no political pull or gravitas on their own. Which means Sharon will have to bolster them with people who come from outside the Likud sphere and that's a recipe for disagreements."
There will be at least a five-way leadership fight in the party Sharon leaves behind, although his archrival Benjamin Netanyahu is considered the front-runner.
"There are no plans for a second disengagement," Sharon said Monday night after Israeli stations broke into regular programming for live coverage of his resignation from Likud. "But when we reach the final part of the (U.S.-backed) road map (peace plan), where the final borders of the Palestinian state are determined, I assume some of the settlements will not be able to stay."
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