Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called early elections and quit his ruling party. He said his intention is to carry on with the peace process.
Mr. Sharon says he quit the hawkish Likud party that he co-founded 30 years ago to end a rebellion from hardliners opposed to his pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer. He told a Jerusalem news conference that "political wrangling" was making it impossible for him to govern. The prime minister announced the formation of a new party, called "National Responsibility."
"The new party will give the nation hope for peace," Mr. Sharon said. But he denied speculation that he plans additional unilateral withdrawals from parts of the West Bank. He said the internationally-backed "Road map" peace plan is the only plan. It calls for peace moves to be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, and it demands a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism as a first step.
But Likud rebel Uzi Landau believes Mr. Sharon is planning additional withdrawals in the West Bank, and "that he's planning far-reaching concessions in the future. And he knows that within Likud that's a non-starter. We will do whatever possible to stop it."
Early elections are expected to take place in March. And while Mr. Sharon is riding a wave of popularity from the Gaza pullout, polls show that as head of a new party, victory is not assured. So at age 77, it's a political gamble for the Prime Minister and a defining moment.
The divorce from the Likud crowns Mr. Sharon's transformation from the nation's top hawk to a moderate. The Likud was established on the principle of settling all the Biblical land of Israel, but now he wants to relinquish territory that is home to millions of Palestinians. Mr. Sharon has said that his historic mission is to establish a strong Jewish majority within defensible borders.