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Sharon's illness upsets the Israeli-Palestinian chessboard


The massive cerebral hemorrhage suffered by Israeli PM Ariel Sharon is clearly the most significant even in the recent history of Israeli-Palestinian relations, but nobody is really able to say what the significance is.

Before his stroke, Sharon was slated by all accounts to sweep to victory at the head of the Kadima party in the next elections, with about 40 mandates. A quick poll showed that if Sharon is incapacitated, the Likud party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu would get 16 mandates, Labor 18 and the Kadima party would get 13 mandates, with 36 mandates undecided. This reflects the situation: nobody knows what to think. Remarkably, neither Likud nor Labor gained any apparent support.

Sharon's medical condition is uncertain. Hadassah hospital announced that he is being maintained under anesthesia and artificial respiration for the next 24 hours to reduce intracranial pressure, and emphasized that this is a normal procedure following massive stroke. However, given the fact that surgeons worked for about 8 or 9 hours to stop intracranial bleeding, it is probable that there was significant irreversible damage to cerebral function. It is unlikely that he will be able to continue in his duties. Despite the announcement of the General Manager of Hadassah, Professor Mor Yosef, rumors persist that Sharon's condition is very poor, and there was even a rumor that he had died. However, Yair Lapid reminds us that Sharon is a very tough and cynical fighter, who has won many battles against high odds, and would probably take pride in reading his own obituary.

Sharon's illness elicited remarkable concern from Arab leaders. The respect he has woe is a measure of the long road that he covered in a very short time, from "butcher of Jenin" and "butcher of Sabra and Shatila" to being the architect of disengagement and the first Israeli Prime Minister to evacuate settlements. To be sure, there were barbaric expressions of delight by PFLP leader Jibril and militants in Rafiah handed out candy.

Sharon's stroke removed almost the last positive certainty in the Israeli-Palestinian political scene. It seemed that he was we politically indestructible. News reports of evidence of massive corruption did not hurt him. After his first stroke, the standing of his Kadima party actually improved in the polls. Had Sharon been elected, it was virtually certain that he would continue the unilateral disengagement policy, withdrawing from significant chunks of the West Bank and setting the "permanent border of Israel" in the neighborhood of the path of the security fence. This plan was leaked to the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv, and Sharon himself hinted at it broadly in a statement just before he was stricken. This move would have gotten de facto tacit approval from the United States and probably from the EU, though it is quite doubtful that it would get the official US recognition that Sharon had sought.

The reason for this policy is not hard to understand. Most Israelis have realized that it is not possible, practical or reasonable to continue occupying large portions of Palestinian land. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is no organized Palestinian society or political organization that can negotiate and guarantee a peace agreement. Anesthetized in hospital, Sharon probably has better control of Israel then the apparently healthy Mahmoud Abbas has over his Palestinian Authority. Kidnappings, shootings, election irregularities, Hamas threats and random firing of Kassam rockets mark the descent of the Palestinian society into religion and barbarism. Yesterday, Fateh extremists grabbed a bulldozer and destroyed a part of the wall between Egypt and Gaza at the Rafiah border crossing. In the ensuing riot and stampede, two Egyptian soldiers were murdered and many more were injured. Palestinian elections, if they are held, would probably result in a government dominated by or dependent upon the extremist Hamas movement, which probably would not even pretend to want to negotiate a reasonable settlement.

Whatever happens, Sharon will be credited with doing three 'impossible' things:

1. He left behind his own settler oriented Greater Israel constituency and successfully took a new path dictated by reality.

2. He removed Israeli settlers from Gaza

3. Though he did not do much to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he made a significant contribution to transforming the conflict from an essentially ideological clash with the entire Arab and Muslim world to a local brush war between Palestinians and Israelis. If this movement continues, it will be an achievement of enormous importance.

He has had enough time to show what is possible, but it is not clear if he or anyone else can complete the work.

Sharon's way and his departure from the Likud was much more than a momentary political disagreement. It signaled a fundamental change in Israeli society and Zionist ideology, a return to the pragmatic politics exemplified by the Mapai party of David Ben Gurion. More than a disengagement from territories, it was a disengagement from an ideology of Messianism and Greater Israel. Sharon was able to take skillful advantage of a very bad international political situation, and perhaps the worst possible relations with the Palestinians, to nonetheless make a positive step for peace. His policy has contributed in no small measure to bringing out a momentous change in the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed in the Middle East. A recent poll shows that Arabs no longer rate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the top issue in the Middle East. From being a regional or global issue, an Israeli-Arab-Muslim conflict, it is gradually and subtly being reduced to a local conflict.

Ironically, in a way, of all political leaders in recent years, Sharon came the closest to "continuing in the path of Rabin." In the long run, the return to the original mission of Zionism as a secular and pragmatic nationalist movement is an inevitable dictate of reality. In the short term however, it is not clear that anyone other than a Rabin or Sharon has the leadership abilities needed to carry this program with the Israeli public.

The only thing certain now is that nothing is certain. If the political system can reflect the desires of the Israeli public, Israel will elect a government that attempts to continue the policies of Sharon. Kadima is a new party built essentially around one man. Who can take over? Both Shaul Mofaz and Ehud Ohlmert seem capable of leadership. However, many would have been thought capable of ruling, had they not ruled. Shimon Peres is a known quantity, and if politics were logical, he might be the logical successor. Like Sharon, he is one of the "irreplaceable" founding fathers of Israel. However, it is unlikely that he, or anyone else who is not Ariel Sharon, could assert control over Kadima, a motley collection of ex-Likud members, ex-Labor members, former leftists and former settler leaders, and once and future opportunists. Benjamin Netanyahu is also a known quantity, known and apparently loathed by most Israelis. The Likud however, has a relatively large election budget from public funds, because it was a large party in the last elections - only 14 MKs left to join Kadima. It is in the best position to shelter refugees from Kadima and offer a welcome to returning prodigal sons. Amir Peretz, newly crowned leader of the Labor party, is a political novice. He has promising ideas, but he has not succeeded in navigating the alligator-infested waters of the Labor party swamp.

When a giant tree falls in the forest, it creates an upheaval.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 9 comments

I disagree with your assessment of there being no peace partner among the Palestinians. Even Henry Seigmann noted recently that if the Israelis wanted a peace partner they could get one. Sharon however couldn't accept a man like Yasser Arafat who would of ask for more than 90% of the West Bank and a state that would be equal to Israel at least to some degree. His dream was in fact an apartheid. Modified to look like two states. He did not want to give the Jordan Valley neither did he want to various settlements. He wanted a Palestinian state to be economically crippled by settlement placement and checkpoints. In the end he was a strong man and certainly one of the best politicians in Mideast history. The Palestinians now must ask themselves what to do next. Having been paralyzed by Sharon convincing the world that onle Israel and not the Palestinians can make peace, the Palestinians sit as the world condems them for everything. Even at times were peace was close such as Taba, the Palestinians are blamed for everything. Now they must prove that an entire conflict cannot logically be the fault of one side. Especailly since this conflict is quite old.

Also the surpise warmth towards Israel from Egypt and Jordan and perhaps other Arab leaders is not neccessarly out belief in the peace proccess but a way to divert American pressure to accept democracy. This was recently said in USA Today that many Arab leaders seek good relations with Israel to avoid democratic pressure. In other words the Arab public loses a chance for democracy in return for peace with Israel. In many ways American policies inthe Middle East help change the nature of what is important in the Middle East rather than Israel who took advantage of US involvement in the Middle East in recent years.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 01/05/2006 08:10 PM CST

IMO a fundamental error made by many commentators is commencing with the idea that Israel has an obligation to facilitate the creation of a stable Palestinian state. Israel as a state has only an obligation to itself to ensure its own stability and maximise the benefits it can from exploiting the resources available to it.
Israel therefore only has an interest in supporting political entities within the Palestinian community that can deliver on their promises. Unfortunately to date the Palestinian leadership has not been able to do that. Under Arafat's leadership effective civil government did not establish itself, and Arafat reverted to pre-Oslo strategies once negotiations with Israel became difficult. The failure to create central singular governmental control by the PNA, and assert their authority has produced little more than chaos. As I have said before Abbas, or whoever leades the PNA must be willing to use force to assert control over all the armed factions. This he is not willing to do.
It is far from evident that the Palestinians have collectively agreed to work towards the creation of a stable civil society which accords to international norms. Nor do they seem to acknowledge that the construction of governmental systems is more important for overall success than obtaining apparent control over territory - this has been a flaw in Palestinian thinking since the 1940's.
If the Palestinians want to conclude a permanent peace with Israel where the bulk of the occupied territories, where appropriate border adjustments are made to meet both sides needs, they need to elect a government willing and able to deliver on their side of any agreement.
If they continue not to do so, then any future Israeli leader can simply extend the Gaza evacuation to the West Bank, close the border and leave Palestine to descend into chaos and penury. Israel could state quite categorically that it had complied with 242, and note that Palestine had not. This outcome would not be in the interests of the Palestinians.
The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was not a victory for the Palestinians, it was a fundamental defeat. But it was not the Israelis that won, it was the forces of chaos that now stalk the streets.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 01/06/2006 01:59 PM CST

It is a time in which certainty is unavailable. However, in the immediate absence of the Father Figure, it appears that Ehud Olmert is drawing broad support from his major Kadima partners and taking the domestic, security and international steps necessary to enable the new Party under his leadership to emerge and move "Forward" to the March elections. Old men and Prime Ministers sometimes have the opportunity to look out on the world with new eyes that bring the perspective of a lifetime of experience. Ariel Sharon seemed to finally see the real needs of Israel through the thicket of bombings, and settlements, and assasinations, and closures and tribal disputes that have marked the lives of all the children of Abraham over the past 100 years. As a result he rose above the choruses of hatred, fear and vengence and laid the groundwork for a unilateral separation demarked by disengagement, a wall and a new Party freed from the constraints of Likud to finish his vision of the first generation of a comprehensive peace between the two peoples. I pray that Israelis have the wisdom to sanctify his vision in the ballot box.

Posted by Larry Snider @ 01/07/2006 03:39 PM CST

Rod Davies
While Israel did not need to facilate a Palestinian state they agreed to to9 nogtiate toward one. This agreement came about with both Oslo and the roadmap. Also Yasser Arafat did not start or planned the intifada. In fact he did much to avoid it. It was Arial Sharon who's action of entering the Al-Aqsa which started it.You act as if only the Palestinians are the only ones needed to support Israel's issue of security. Israel being the dominant party however can also meet the Palestinian needs for borders. It all happens at the negotiating table something Sharon has refused to do with either Arafat and Abbas. The Palestinian people through poles have shown a willingness to negotiate yet such negotiations were never in Sharon's mind. In order to avoid Israel turning into a democracy, he chose an apartheid of checkpoints and barriers.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 01/07/2006 10:47 PM CST

For the first time in my living memory, these coming Israeli elections, will in my opinion, be 'normal' that is decided over economic issues rather than the diplomatic - arab - Israeli conflict. Palestinian elections, whether they take place or not (unless they do and Hamas is discovered to be unpopular after all) will make the whole issure mute.
besides Peres (frankly many Isrealis are tired of him) Israeli politics is now dominated by a generation that was rejected by the public: Ehud Barak and Benjamine Netanyahu both had short unsuccessful political careers. Amir Peretz is not known for his national security views. There is no leader with military credentials to step into a security minded leader such as Rabin/Sharon/ or even Rafful; Barak was the last of to even try this option and failed.
Netanyahu/ Olmert/ Peretz /Livni all feel at home talking about economics, and the National Security issues are frankly run to the ground. The feeling that 'the ball is on the Palestinian court' will make these elections gravitate towards other issues. How can anyone consider the peace process with a Palestinian Authority that lacks authority to hold elections? Or with a Palestinian leadership that incorporates Hamas?

Posted by Robert Tiden @ 01/08/2006 11:59 PM CST

Butros Dahu,
Ariel Sharon entered the Al Aqsa Mosque and made some stupid statement - so what? Did this justify the very rapid outbreak of violence? In my opinion no. The speed at which the Palestinians progressed to a state of virtual outright war against Israel belies the fact that they were largely prepared and looking for an excuse. Had a single Palestinian defence force existed under a proper command structure, then there would have been no outbreak of violence unless directed by the PNA.
However it is Arafat's legacy that there are so many armed factions which may or may not be under some direction from the PNA from time to time. These forces are not the creation of the Israelis, they are the creation of the very distinct characteristic of the PLO where Arafat played off each faction in order to hold on to power in the middle. He never really commanded them, rather he bought them off as and when necessary. They in turn reserved the right to operate independently. This is terms of nation states is anarchy and extremely dangerous to the state and its neighbours.
While the Palestinians may think that they are willing to negotiate, it is notable that many reserve the right to return to armed conflict if the outcome of those negotiations do not suit them. A significant proportion of the Palestinians, that support Hamas, are opposed to a permanent peace with Israel, and seek to establish a regime akin to apartheid throughout the region.
Today the Palestinians are in a very weak negotiating position and that is played out in the attenpts at negotiation. The Palestinians want to be treated as equals. Yet on the one thing that the Israelis want addressed, security, the Palestinians have yet to deliver on. If the Palestinians cannot deliver non-violence, then the Israelis might as well give up on any negotiations and simply act unilaterally.
Unless Butros, you regard the West Bank as an integral part of Israel, IDF etc actions at checkpoints have nothing to do with Israeli democracy and everything to do with the managed occupation of the territories captured in 1967. If you regard the West Bank as integral to Israel and therefore rightly subject to Israeli law, the apartheid discrimination you allege would be illegal. However if the West Bank is part of Israel then actions that the IDF take against the armed factions are merely internal policing matters. Also Ariel Sharons entry to the Al Aqsa was merely the activiites of a minister of the legal government.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 01/09/2006 10:59 AM CST

Butros wrote:
"Having been paralyzed by Sharon convincing the world that onle Israel and not the Palestinians can make peace, the Palestinians sit as the world condems them for everything. Even at times were peace was close such as Taba, the Palestinians are blamed for everything."
I don't know where you live, but I think it is often rather the contrary: most people blame Sharon for causing the second intifada by his visit to the Temple Mount, a lot of people believe that Barak offered 'Bantustans' and not 97% of the West Bank including sovereignty over the Temple Mount above the ground and Palestinian sovereignty over Arab parts of Jerusalem as was the case. The Palestinians are not condemned for their wrongs very much, because they are all the fault of the brutal Israeli occupation and Abbas is too weak to confront the extremists. At the same time the same people think it totally logical that Israel should trust Abbas and make a deal with him. Few people ask how it is possible to make a deal with someone who is incapable of keeping order. It is true that Israel could have done more to strengthen Abbas, but the Palestinians also do little to strengthen Israeli peaceniks. Condemning terror attacks is not enough! Did Abbas ever get really angry at Palestinians who celebrate and hand out sweets after a 'successful' terrorist attack? It happened more than once. Did you ever notice Israeli's go on the streets after a succesful assassination of a terrorist and wishing Israel would kill more people in the next strike?
Butros wrote:
"Now they must prove that an entire conflict cannot logically be the fault of one side. Especailly since this conflict is quite old."
I agree entirely, but 'they' refers to Israel rather than the Palestinians. I think it great if both sides (and the international communitiy) could agree that indeed both sides are responsible for the current mess they are in. Whereas there are a lot of Israeli's on the left who are very critical of their country, its politics, and the past, how many Palestinians are critical of their part of the conflict?? Where Israeli critics talk about the expulsion of the refugees, Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatilla, the settlements and the wall, I miss the Palestinians that acknowledge the role of Nazi collaborator Amin Al Husseini, the closing of Palestine for Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, the Hebron massacre in 1929, and the many many terrorist attacks on innocent civilians during the peace process and the intifada. If you are sincere about peace, you should be able to also see the wrongs of your own side, and not only point to the others' wrongs.

With your remarks that Sharon caused the second intifada while Arafat tried to avoid it,and that the Palestinians wanted to negotiate while Israel didn't, you seem to contradict your own statement that the entire conflict cannot be the fault of one side. In fact, Arafat and others of the PA regalarly made inciting statements in support of the intifada. In 2002, Israel captured documents that proved how much Arafat and the PA were involved in terrorism.

Posted by Ratna @ 01/09/2006 09:37 PM CST

For the record - one of the recent examples of mythification in history is the vicious rumor -- believed all over the Middle East, that Ariel Sharon entered the Al-Aqsa mosque. Sharon did not enter any mosque. It is a lie invented by people who wanted to bring about death and destruction and they succeeded. We should be careful never to spread this lie.

Sharon's visit was a provocation meant to prove a point - that a Jew cannot visit the temple mount in peace. Sharon was a politician doing what politicians do - unseating their opposition, by fair means or foul. He visited the Temple Mount but he did not enter any mosque. The fact that Barghouti and others used it to wreck the Oslo Accords is their responsibility. The Temple Mount, whatever the religious sensibilities of anyone, must be open to people of all faiths.


Posted by Moderator @ 01/11/2006 05:21 PM CST

What you all are suggesting is that the Palestinians must provide security but for what in return? While times have not been perfectly quiet as Henry Seigmann noted Israeli settlemnt building as well slow movements on the peace proccess which created an unease in the region. This unease needed only a spark to set it off. Sharon knew he could it off and exploited it. If peace was completely destroyed then why did Barak continue to negotiate after the outbrake of the second intifada? Sharon came into power and therefore refused to continue to negotiate. In fact even up till recently he said negotiations with the Palestinians won't begin until years to come.

Sharon's vision was to force a settlement. One with Strong Israeli state and a weak Palestinian one if it could even be called state. He did nopt want to give up the Jordan valley he wanted checkpoints and enclaves.He wanted to leave the territories and never really leave the territories. In many ways he followed the path of South Africa. Demanding elections in the Palestinian cantons just like whites allowed elections in the black banstantuns of South Africa to legitimize their aparthied. In many ways it may lead to nothing than a repeat of history. The population between non-Jews and Jews is but a few thousand in both israeland the territories. What Sharon may have done maybe be nothing more than stalling for time.
In many though Sharon was like Arafat. A hardliner who chose violence in the begginning of his life only to choose reality at the end of his life.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 01/14/2006 09:42 PM CST

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