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"National Responsibility," the leading name so far for the newborn party, is a cover for the new party's wild card: Here before you is a politician of a new breed - a leader whose rare sense of national responsibility has led him to concede a sure victory in the race for the leadership of the Likud and in the Knesset elections, and a sure term as prime minister. And why? A close advisor, who says he contributed to Ariel Sharon's dramatic decision, offers three reasons: "First, Arik reached the conclusion that that the State of Israel cannot afford to live with the Likud Central Committee as it is. Second, he understands that as the head of a party that does not support him, there is no hope of making any diplomatic moves. Third, he wants to bring in new faces, like Avi Dichter, who would have had no chance of entering public life through the existing parties." The associate added that Sharon is determined to change the electoral system to a presidential system with regional elections, based on the American model.

It may well be that Sharon is sick and tired of dirty politics. He has apparently not heard that the new budget law includes a section that increases the government's control over the appointment of religious councils and their members, one of his son Omri's favorite hobbies. Perhaps he had nothing to do with the decision by his right-hand man, Ehud Olmert, to support a bill that would permit the rezoning of land in moshavim and kibbutzim, counter to the stance taken by the attorney general and justice minister. Everything has, of course, been done for all the right reasons. It has absolutely nothing to do with members of the Likud Central Committee from the moshav sector, who will be the main beneficiaries of the new law. Who knows, perhaps the Likud voters are the ones who prevented Sharon from launching negotiations with the Palestinians. Perhaps it really is necessary to start a new party in order to implement the government's decision from last March to adopt the Sasson report and dismantle the outposts. The Israel Defense Forces, after all, is unprepared to take apart settlements in the territories that the government has decided to dismantle. Did anyone say anything about a civil war? And what about Dichter? How can we move ahead on the peace track without our expert in targeted assassinations, checkpoints and closures?

Or perhaps the reason for quitting the Likud lies elsewhere, and not only - or perhaps not at all - in national responsibility. Here is an entirely different explanation, one far more conventional than the theory involving the responsible statesman who decided to act in the country's best interests. In the story of a not-too-young politician, the gamble by Sharon that the next premiership is in his pocket is based on the assumption that the Likud members would have given him another round in the battle. This assumption is based on a series of public-opinion polls that say that if the primaries in the Likud were held today, Sharon would leave Benjamin Netanyahu far behind. However, a stubborn rumor has been making the rounds that Moshe Feiglin and his "orange" followers in the Likud Central Committee have been using a diversion tactic on Sharon that they picked up from ultra-Orthodox circles. They have instructed their people to tell the pollsters that they plan to vote for Sharon in the Likud primaries.

The members of Sharon's "Farm forum" also started to suspect that the polls sounded too good to be true. Advisors to Sharon told him that a victory in the primaries was far from a sure thing and that if he were to run at the head of a separate party, the Likud would come to court him after the elections. For Sharon, this is a case of "been there, done that," in the short-lived episode of his Shlomtzion party. Somebody did the math for him and told him that the Likud without him at its head together with National Responsibility running separately could garner more Knesset seats than the Likud with him at its head. The decision to leave the Likud and form a new party was not, then, the courageous step of a statesman concerned about the nation. It was no more than a political decision by a politician afraid to lose.

The Mofaz effect

The Basic Law on the Knesset stipulates that a Knesset member who quits his own faction and does not resign soon afterward cannot be included in the following Knesset elections in the list of candidates submitted by a party in the outgoing Knesset. The Elections Funding Law determines that Knesset members who quit their own factions are entitled to funding only if they are members of a group that represents at least a third of the mother party. That is why Yosef Paritzky insisted at the time he quit Shinui that the Knesset house committee recognize him as a branch that split off from Shinui rather than as an MK who quit Knesset faction in the middle of the term. He got his wish thanks to a mistake by Shinui, which dismissed him from all committees, thereby paralyzing his Knesset activity and forcing the house committee to give him another venue for parliamentary action.

That is why Sharon was looking desperately yesterday for a 14th Knesset member, the one he needed to make up one-third of the Likud faction. Despite the fact that Shaul Mofaz is not a Knesset member and his electoral contribution is doubtful, the prime minister spared no charm to hitch him to his new party, too. Sharon knows that the fate of the elections will largely be decided by the minister of defense and the defense establishment under his control. The prime minister's most important electoral asset - his relationship with the United States - will in the coming months be in Mofaz's hands.

The behavior of Mofaz and his people - coordinator Amos Gilad and secretary Eitan Dangut - during the negotiations over the Rafah crossing, infuriated James Wolfensohn, the Quartet's special envoy for the disengagement, who in fact is U.S. President George W. Bush's personal envoy. The Rafah agreement was ultimately attained only after the intervention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - in part so that she could return to President Bush with a shred of an achievement, a rare commodity in the White House these days. Sharon could end up paying a high price for Rice's signature on the paper. A failure to implement the agreement and delays in meetings to complete it would be added to the United States' long list of failures in the Middle East. For the same reason, Bush will appreciate any sign of success in the Israeli-Palestinian sector. Unfortunately, Gilad and Eliott Abrams, his interlocutor in the White House, come from the same neoconservative school of thought that pushed Bush into Iraq in the first place, which views the Arab world mainly though the crosshairs of a rifle.

The Peretz effect

The three large parties - the old Likud on the right, Sharon's new party in the center and the new Labor party headed by Amir Peretz on the left - will eat away at the small parties' pie. The main casualty will be Shinui, whose voters, middle- and upper-middle-class Ashkenazim, have run the ultra-Orthodox-hatred horse to exhaustion. They are afraid of Peretz and his social-welfare agenda and identify with the new moderate Sharon.

Professor Uriel Reichman, who conceived the match between Yosef Lapid and Avraham Poraz, returned yesterday morning from a trip abroad and landed right in the middle of the political brouhaha. If Sharon courts Reichman successfully, it would be a death blow to Shinui, which is already suffering from a hardening of the arteries. Until yesterday, Sharon did not give Shinui a shadow of a chance to join the big bang. Because even before he sets aside seats on his list for new immigrants, it is going to be very crowded at the top. Before he worries about Hemi Doron and Melli Polishuk-Bloch, he has to assure the futures of Avraham Hirchson and Marina Solodkin, whose covenant with Sharon burned their political bridges with the Likud.

The second casualty will be Meretz-Yahad. On the one hand, the chance that a full-fledged leftist like Peretz could be elected prime minister is the best news in a long time for this tiny, rifted party. On the other hand, even Yossi Sarid, its own flesh and blood, has suggested that the left have a little bang of its own. Yossi Beilin is pinning his hopes on two factors that are almost as far apart from one another as Meretz from the National Religious Party: The first is the declaration that Meretz would be willing to join a coalition with Sharon. He believes that this bizarre option would attract voters who want to pull Sharon to the left and trust Meretz more in this matter than they trust Peretz.

The second factor is the Arab votes. In the previous elections, which were held at the height of the intifada, when Amram Mitzna looked like a lost cause, many Arabs voted with their feet. Meretz is assuming that Peretz entering the game will also awaken the sleepy Arab gallery and that the voting rate among them will be higher than the 63 percent who dragged themselves to the voting booths in the last elections. Peretz could also wake up the kibbutzim, another Meretz vote resource. The party is also counting on new faces, such as Colonel Shaul Arieli, who brings with him rich political-security experience, and former MK Ilan Gilon, who is very popular among the poorer classes. According to the party's constitution, veteran members, especially Yossi Sarid, Ran Cohen and Haim Oron, need at least 60 percent of the vote in the party primaries.

The third casualty is Shas, which has already started hunting for a slogan to compete with Peretz's battle cries against poverty. Attorney David Glass, the political brains behind Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, says that he is willing to bet again, just like on the eve of the previous elections, that Shas will win a two-digit number of Knesset seats. He says that Eli Yishai will run a "well-oiled machine." He believes that many of the people who voted for the Likud headed by Sharon in the previous election were former Shas voters who were disappointed with Shas, but because of their dislike of rifts and fights, they are now disappointed with the Likud. "In Shas," he says, "there is nothing like that. Shas has one and only one leader, and no one else."