Meretz MK Yossi Sarid's decision to retire from politics might be seen as a natural step for someone who has served 32 years in the Knesset. But Sarid is about the same age as, and became an MK at the same time as, Ehud Olmert, who seems be gaining new political life as one of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's closest allies. Even though Sarid had already been pushed aside as leader of Meretz, his retirement is another sign of the tectonic shifts within our political landscape, driven by the rise of Amir Peretz and the departures of Sharon from the Likud and Shimon Peres from Labor - shifts that might directly affect smaller parties such as the Meretz grouping Sarid once led. Sarid began his career as a Labor MK in 1973 and formed Meretz in 1992. He was elected the party's leader in 1996 and oversaw its best electoral performance, 10 seats, in 1999. He served as environment minister under former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and education minister under former prime minister Ehud Barak seven years later, earning wide respect from educators for his efforts, particularly in assisting towns in the South. Sarid told The Jerusalem Post Thursday that he felt this was his most important work: "When the mayors of development towns came to me and urged me not to leave my post as education minister, I cried because I realized that I had truly reached them." He ends a career of principled leftist ideals. He was an ardent supporter of the Oslo Accords and objected to the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, preferring a negotiated agreement with Syria that would have included the return of the Golan Heights. As Sarid said Thursday, "I am flattered that at least I am not in the list of people who are moving from one side to another. I am leaving politics wearing the same shirt that I entered with." With characteristic frankness, Sarid also said he was retiring because he did not stand much chance of winning a seat in the next Knesset, while predicting that Meretz would lose ground. And that's where the wider political shifts may apply. Sarid's departure, and the sober assessment of Meretz's future that partly motivated it, could reflect a wider plight of smaller, more ideological and single-interest parties. Though Sharon's decision to split the Likud and form Kadima might be seen as further fracturing our political system, the advent of three potential ruling parties - Labor, Kadima, and Likud - might actually spur a process of party consolidation. Shinui founder Uriel Reichman's move to Kadima last week makes it likely that Shinui MKs may join him rather than attempt to maintain a separate party if its poll rankings don't improve. The National Religious Party and the National Union have decided to run on a joint list in response to polls that suggest that this is the only way to increase their mandates. Even Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah have put aside their differences and opted to stand together so as not to fall below the three mandate minimum requirement for party participation in the Knesset. While it is far too early to say definitively, this trend towards consolidation may eliminate one of the more bothersome weaknesses of our parliamentary system. While the concept of more parties may seem to ensure more representation, at the same time it can give some small parties a disproportionate amount of power. It was not that long ago that Shas was able to threaten governments and steer budgets in return for its votes on issues that were peripheral to its mandate but central to the nation as a whole. In the more distant past, the National Religious Party has also played such a kingmaker's role. The power of the "swing" parties has often paralyzed the Knesset's ability to address major issues, including reforms in both the economic and religious-secular arena. This may change in the next Knesset. With the emergence of a large centrist party, Labor and the Likud are themselves being pushed toward the ideological margins. This, in turn, will likely marginalize parties even further to the left and right, while at the same time making them somewhat redundant. The public as a whole would likely welcome a process in which the smaller parties gravitated into the three larger ones, even if the religious and Arab parties remain outside them. Such an arrangement could help stabilize and cleanse our system. But even if it did not, any movement toward more broad-based parties, forced to adopt multi-issue platforms, could bring a welcome moderating influence to our sometimes overheated political system.