As foreshadowed last week, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has not only agreed to early elections but has severed ties with Likud and announced the formation of a new centre party. The election, which now looks like being on 28 March, will be one of the most interesting in the country’s history.

Since the 1970s Israel’s problem, psephologically speaking, has been
that it has had two major parties, a host of minor ones and a very pure
form of proportional representation. Sometimes Labor or Likud has been
able to put together a majority coalition, and sometimes they have
governed together, but neither has ever been strong enough to govern

Now Sharon is trying to break that pattern. The likely outcome
is that Labour, the Sharon group and the Likud rump will have
comparable levels of support; any two of them will probably have, if
not a majority, then at least enough to frustrate any attempt by the
third to govern alone. Some sort of coalition will be necessary.

That might seem to put Sharon, the centre player, in the strongest
position. But in reality Sharon has burned his bridges with Likud. Ever
since he explicitly endorsed Palestinian statehood when addressing the
United Nations in September it has been clear that if Sharon has any
political future, it has to lie with the peace camp. Yesterday’s Guardian
quotes Yaron Etzrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew
university: “Likud will pay the price of being ideological and Labour
and Sharon will have to work out their differences to find a way to

Much could happen in the next four months, but it looks as if Israel’s
future will depend on who gets the upper hand as between Sharon and new
Labour leader Amir Peretz.