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November 27, 2005
Kadima: Bold Move Or Hubristic Folly?

Ariel Sharon's surprise move to bolt from the political party he founded thirty years ago to start another just before a new round of elections has many puzzled. How did the Likud's most powerful politician get so disillusioned with his own creation that he could not reform it from within? More importantly, will his new creation, Kadima (Hebrew for Forward) capture enough of the Israeli center to keep Sharon in power to implement his version of the two-state peace plan in the West Bank?

Newsweek has a background piece that explains some of the motivation behind the move, but sheds little light on the political implications of Sharon's rejection of hard-liners in what used to be his own party:

When Sharon pondered last week whether to leave Likud, the party he helped establish 30 years ago, the former arch-hawk canvassed the opinions of his closest advisers but shared his own views with no one. "We talked about it that afternoon in his office and he was completely poker-faced," says Reuven Adler, Sharon's political strategist and campaign manager. "I walked away thinking nothing was go-ing to happen." That evening, Sharon called Adler and told him to start thinking of a name for his new, more centrist political party.

"Risk" might be a good choice. Though long plagued by a rebellion of Likud hardliners, Sharon had lately reasserted himself as the party's undisputed strongman. His withdrawal from Gaza in August had gone quickly and without the anticipated turmoil. And he defeated critics in a key party vote in September. Adler says polls showed that Sharon would rout his strongest Likud challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, by at least 25 percentage points ahead of national elections now scheduled for March. "Staying in Likud would certainly have been the surest way of getting re-elected [prime minister]," says Ehud Olmert, a fellow Likud defector and a running mate on Sharon's new list. But analysts believe it was a combination of politics and personalityhis determination to recast Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and his irrepressible urge to always charge aheadthat pushed Sharon to leave. "He's prepared for a major accommodation in the [occupied] territories that Likud could not accept," Olmert told NEWSWEEK.

After the relative success of the Gaza withdrawal, including diplomatic successes in the Arab world that had eluded other peace brokers like Ehud Barak, Sharon must have felt that the constant battle with Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition of no-land-for-peace hardliners no longer served any purpose at all. The center of Israeli politics appears to have shifted, and the Netanyahu branch of Likud must have gotten too heavy a burden to carry into elections. Like any good general or politician, Sharon felt that he had reached the height of his power and struck strategically to consolidate it. Kadima hopes to gather the realists from Labor as well as those from Likud to create a new "silent majority" center party that will give Israel stability for enough time to enact the rest of Sharon's plan.

Has Sharon correctly divined the nature of Israel politics? Some seem to think so, including Adler, and a number of Likud politicians already pledging themselves for Kadima months ahead of the elections. If he has guessed right, Sharon may have single-handedly saved the two-state solution (for the moment) and perhaps created a revolution in Israeli politics that could last generations. If not, he will find himself in retirement very quickly, and the status of the territories will just as quickly become very precarious. The Bush administration will work overtime keeping tabs on this situation and generating options for us to have at the ready in case of collapse.

As Julius says to Marc Antony in the miniseries Rome, "It's only hubris if you fail." If Sharon played Caesar, we shall find out by the Ides of March.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 27, 2005 8:50 AM

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