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Sharon's bold move

Ariel Sharon is a pragmatist. His decision this week to bolt from the Likud Party he founded and to form a new centrist party appears to be based as much on a belief that a majority of Israelis want peace and a permanent Palestinian state as it is on his own genuine belief in what he is doing.

It also could be the most promising sign of better times the Middle East has seen since before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 — made all the more remarkable when one considers that Sharon was the man who single-handedly touched off the latest bloody intifada in 2000 by defiantly visiting the Noble Sanctuary, as the Muslims call the sacred spot Jews refer to as the Temple Mount.

The world will have to wait until new parliamentary elections, probably in March, to learn whether Sharon's gamble has worked. Utahns, many of whom have long felt ties to the Holy Land and who have historically visited Israel in large numbers, should hope this move signals a new era of calm and, if one dare say it, peace. Much of that will depend as well on the outcome of Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.

Sharon, a long-time hawk, seems uniquely qualified to navigate the delicate waters toward the creation of a Palestinian state. His recent pullout from Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip touched off massive protests among some Israelis but was generally considered a big step toward peace. That step must be followed by further pullouts from the West Bank, which Sharon has said he believes should happen, although he wants the majority of settlements in that region to remain.

In announcing the decision, Sharon said the timing is right for an important move toward peace. "I will not allow anyone to squander it," he said. He obviously feels the Likud Party, with its hard-liners, such as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was dragging him down in that regard.

For his part, Netanyahu had strong words for his former ally, calling him a "dictator" whose policies will lead to tyranny. The question is whether outrage from Likud's right will carry the day in new elections, or whether most Israelis want to make the concessions necessary for peace in their own land and in the larger region.

Early opinion polls show Sharon's decision to move toward the center will pay off. Bearing in mind that so many Arab leaders and radical Islamic groups have called the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a catalyst for all Middle Eastern conflicts, Americans should hope his decision was right, as well.