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Why Elections Now?

On January 28, 2003, the Likud party, led by Ariel Sharon, defeated Labor's Amram Mitzna in the biggest landslide in the history of Israeli politics. Sharon and the Likud attacked Mitzna's call for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza Strip and the construction of a security barrier. Sharon's message of strength, rejection of unilateral moves without a dramatic change among the Palestinians leadership and positions and his sidelining of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, were key ingredients in his monumental victory.

Six months after Sharon's triumph, Israel accepted the Road Map peace plan which openly calls for the creation of a Palestinian state. Then, in December 2003-less than one year after the elections-Sharon laid out his vision for unilaterally "disengaging" from Gaza and Northern Samaria. This announcement, along with the building of the security barrier, meant that Sharon had adopted the very platform that led to Labor's dismal results in 2003 elections.

As Sharon forged ahead with his plans for Disengagement, he lost key coalition partners and invited Labor into his government in order to ensure his government's survival. Labor, seeing their policies put into place by their long-time nemesis, was happy to provide political cover. On the strength of Labor's support and the assumption that Labor leader Shimon Peres would continue as leader of the Labor party, Sharon boldly predicted that his would be only the fourth government in the history of Israel to complete a full four-year term. However, in late November, Amir Peretz defeated Shimon Peres in Labor party primaries and promptly pulled Labor out of Sharon's government, leading to elections.

Knowing that he faced a tough internal challenge to his leadership if he remained in Likud, Prime Minister Sharon decided to leave the party he helped to create to form a new, centrist party-Kadima. As the first sitting Prime Minister to start a new party, Sharon set the wheels in motion for what many observers have called 'Israel's Political Big Bang,' the long awaited re-shuffling of the Israeli political landscape. However, before Sharon was able to capitalize on the positive momentum that Kadima had created, he was struck by a massive stroke that removed him from the political arena. Sharon's trusted Deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has assumed the position of Acting Prime Minister and Chairman of the Kadima party.

The long-term results of Sharon's departure from the scene, the ascension of Ehud Olmert and the formation of, what appears to be, a viable centrist party are unknown, but one thing is clear...on March 28, 2006, Israelis will go to the polls and what will happen on March 29 is anyone's guess.