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FORWARD WITHOUT SHARON

02/10/2006

Upon first learning of Ariel Sharon's massive stroke, the BBC devoted most of its newscasts on PBS and NPR to this breaking story. Among the many personalities interviewed was Meretz party leader Dr. Yossi Beilin. I was amazed at the ignorance and naivete of the BBC newsman. Beilin, after being appropriately solicitous in expressing his concern for the health of the prime minister and the well-being of his family, shocked the interviewer by indicating that even in his recent role as the initiator of disengagement and withdrawal, Sharon was not a dove. The fact that Sharon never engaged the Palestinians in a genuine peace process seemed incredible to this so-called journalist.

Part of the legacy of Sharon's unilateralism is that Hamas was elected in the first place. I recall Amos Oz's caustic comment in 2001 that Sharon was "Arafat's gift" to the people of Israel, because Arafat's manipulation of violence is what undermined Barak and brought Sharon to power. In the same vein, Hamas is Sharon's "gift" to the Palestinians. This is not to excuse Arafat's legacy of cronyism, corruption and misrule. However, one could argue that the stage was set for the rise of Hamas when Sharon failed to bolster Abbas's political standing by releasing more prisoners and easing the lives of Palestinians. In any case, Palestinians suffering from severe restrictions on travel, losses of property, and settler violence and intimidation had had enough of Fatah's monopoly in power.

There's little doubt that if Sharon had remained in adequate health, he would have been elected at the head of his new Kadima (Forward) party as prime minister. He would also have likely made a significant unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank during his new term. However, given his enduring instincts as a warrior rather than a peacemaker, Sharon was probably only capable of unilateral initiatives.

Sharon's successors at the helm of Kadima are almost all more dovish. It was Ehud Olmert whose public statements first hinted at Sharon's new policy direction. This formerly right-wing Likudnik may have been decisively influenced by his wife, a member of Meretz. His influence may in turn have very well had a role in the limited but important change in Sharon. His major co-leader in Kadima is Tzipi Livni, now both foreign and justice minister, and similarly dovish. Additionally, there's the role of none other than Shimon Peres, now also among Kadima's leaders.

It is my hope not an expectation in these unsettled times and in such an inherently difficult neighborhood, but a real hope that Kadima will form a majority coalition with Labor and Meretz after the March 28 elections to lead Israel to a decidedly more peaceful and better future. Hamas may be a formidable obstacle to such hopes, but not necessarily.

I don't want to excuse any of the ongoing attacks (mostly rockets into the Negev), but Hamas has noticeably taken a terrorist back seat to Islamic Jihad since agreeing to a "lull" in the Intifada over half a year ago. Hamas is the most disciplined of all major Palestinian factions terrorist and otherwise. Hamas may even see it in its interest to stop attacks by Islamic Jihad, which has has rejected any suspension of the Intifada, and by unruly elements of Fatah and its most violent wing, the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades. Polling data tell us that even Hamas voters, like 70 percent of Palestinians in the territories, mostly back peace with Israel (although they have a funny way of showing this), having voted for Hamas as a protest against years of Fatah corruption and misrule one of Arafat's many "gifts" to his people. As in all Israeli elections, however, the risk of terrorist attack remains the wild card.

Ralph Seliger


RALPH SELIGER is editor of ISRAEL HORIZONS, the publication of Meretz USA. These views are his own.



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