Consider This a Divorce, Arik Tells Likud

The feeling of relief flooding Ariel Sharon yesterday was unmistakable - like a prisoner set free, or a woman finally divorced from an abusive husband.

The feeling of relief flooding Ariel Sharon yesterday was unmistakable - like a life prisoner who has been set free, or a woman who finally got a divorce from an abusive husband.

The news conference he convened in his Jerusalem office resembled a cheerful divorce party. Sharon, who is almost 78 years old, was at his best - relaxed, at peace with himself, smiling and alert. After his break with the Likud, Sharon is like the newly divorced - back on the market and open to offers.

A few hours earlier, at the meeting of the Likud faction - or two thirds of it, at least - the MKs did not even pretend to be happy. For months they had made Sharon's life miserable, humiliated him in the Knesset, undermined him and tried to get rid of him. Yet at the first session without him and 13 of their colleagues, all the heroes sat frowning, confused, as though a little ashamed of each other.

"Why don't we raise a toast, or something," suggested Michael Eitan sarcastically. The others smiled weakly. Suddenly they seemed to miss Sharon's legendary sarcasm. The one who appeared most nervous and troubled was Benjamin Netanyahu. He took his place at the head of the table, as befitting the crown prince, to the right of faction chair Gideon Sa'ar. Netanyahu's face was gray. His fingers drummed the table restlessly. Is Netanyahu suffering from fear of abandonment, too? Probably not. He just didn't expect Sharon's departure would produce three more contenders for the Likud leadership. Now he must deal with Shaul Mofaz, who agonized at length yesterday, changing his mind several times before deciding to stay in the Likud; Yisrael Katz, who is threatening to steal the infrastructure he had built for Netanyahu for the previous primaries; and Silvan Shalom, the most experienced politician, who is expected to attract most of Sharon's supporters.

In private conversations, some of Sharon's toughest adversaries admitted that due to Sharon's departure the Likud could plummet to 20 Knesset seats, half of its present size.

"The Likud could find itself in the opposition for years," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said yesterday.

One of the hardline rebels did not rule out the possibility that Amir Peretz would be the next prime minister. Almost in every corner of the Knesset, someone had a brother, a sister, a neighbor or a grandmother, Likud voters or undecided, who said in the past day that he or she intended to vote for Sharon or Peretz.

A Sharon-led party that presents itself as a center party - without actually calling itself that, to avoid reminding people of past farces - will try to push Peretz-led Labor to the the radical left, toward outdated socialism, and the Likud, headed by whomever, to the radical right.

"We are starting out in a new direction," Sharon kept saying at the news conference yesterday. His advisers searched for a catchy name for the new party. They decided that the party's Knesset list would be set by a three-person committee - Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. This implies that Olmert and Livni will be among the first five, maybe even numbers two and three. The slots on the list will raise problems in the next few days. Everyone wants to be in the opening ten, but there are only nine places left, after Sharon.

The mystery of Peres' future was solved yesterday. Asked what about Shimon, Sharon replied laughingly: "I believe he's had enough of political life." It's not clear whether Peres knows it, but Sharon has sent him to early retirement. Peres himself sat in the Knesset cafeteria yesterday, in his first public appearance since his loss to Peretz. He too looked good. Asked about his future plans he smiled broadly, spread his hands and declared joyfully: "I'm free!"