A massive majority of Israeli lawmakers Monday night approved eight bills to dissolve the Knesset (parliament). Early elections are set to be held on March 28.
This came after a dramatic day in which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon submitted his resignation from the ruling Likud party and announced the formation of a new centrist party. The move is considered a significant shift in Israeli politics.
Sharon convened a press conference in Jerusalem on Monday and officially announced his decision.
One Sharon associate was quoted as saying, "this is a dramatic and fateful decision fraught with danger. Sharon has already been prime minister. He wants to lead processes, and he understands that they won't let him [do that] in the Likud, but he is torn because this is a sensitive decision from his perspective - he established the Likud."
Sharon's new party attracted 13 Likud members, in addition to numerous non-Likud personalities. Likud officials said the new party would be a "true centrist party, from every perspective: political, economic and social." Sharon ruled out unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank, and said he remains committed to the internationally-backed road map plan which calls for a negotiated peace deal culminating in a Palestinian state.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked several Likud members, including Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, to remain with the party.
Mofaz reportedly also was approached by Sharon, who urged him to demonstrate "national responsibility," join him and continue to act as Israel's defense minister following elections. Mofaz announced late Monday he would stay in the Likud.
Another faction that will be influenced by Sharon's move is Labor, which expects to gain from the new political scheme. Party Chairman Amir Peretz said Sunday that if the Likud and the new Sharon party clash, this may benefit Labor.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who recently met with Sharon to discuss mutual cooperation, will not join Sharon's new party, thought he will likely be integrated into the future government in some manner.
Both Sharon and Peretz are expected to offer Peres involvement in government affairs after the elections.
"Peres knows that if he quits Labor he will face very harsh public criticism," a source at the Labor party said.
Meanwhile, Likud is expected to face a fierce battle over its leadership following Sharon's withdrawal. Right wing parties have also considered forming a new political bloc, which may include former Likud members, the National Religious Party, National Union and MK Avigdor Liberman's Israel Our Home.
On his part, the leader of the left-wing "Meretz-Yahad" faction Monday described Sharon's decision as a "real opportunity" for the peace camp. In comments aired on Israel Radio, Yossi Beilin called Sharon's resignation "a big victory for supporters of sharing the land."
"This is a real opportunity for a coalition headed by the peace camp, including former Likud members who understood that for 38 years they have deceived the nation and themselves."
Also Monday the Palestinian Authority said that it was monitoring the political situation in Israel. "We, in the Palestinian leadership, are watching carefully the unfolding political developments [in Israel] to see its consequences on the peace process," Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Sha'ath said Monday.
© 2005 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )