Politics After Sharon

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What Sharon’s Stroke Means

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

Washington's Middle East project received another blow last week after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a severe stroke. It is unlikely that the former Israeli general will be able to return to active political life.

This means that US President George W Bush and his aides will find it even more difficult to juggle the many elements in their ambitious plan to “remake the Middle East,” including establishing stability and democracy in Iraq, containing Iran’s potential nuclear military power, reforming the Arab world’s political and economic systems, and, yes, before we forget, helping create an independent Palestinian state and the conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

It would be, of course, an exaggeration to describe Sharon — the main driving force behind the buildup of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories — as a peacenik or a dove.

As the leader of the nationalist Likud party, he was elected Israel’s prime minister in the aftermath of the start of the second Intifadah and led a very brutal military campaign aimed at suppressing the Palestinian uprising that led to much death and destruction in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And he and his aides expressed skepticism about the need to implement the roadmap for peace in the Middle East which has been pushed by the Middle East Quartet (the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia).

But Sharon also demonstrated that he was a political pragmatist when he decided to support a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the removal of the Jewish settlers there. It was a decision based on Realpolitik considerations regarding the rising costs of protecting the Jewish settlements in the Arab Gaza Strip — and not part of a strategy to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians — and was backed by a large majority of the Israelis. It was opposed not only by the militant Jewish settlers but also by many of the Likud party’s leaders and activists who continue to back the Greater Israel agenda of maintaining Israeli control over occupied territories.

Sharon stunned the Israeli public and shook up the political system when he announced last year that he and several other Likud figures were leaving the party and creating a new political grouping called Kadima (Forward), which also attracted major political figures from other parties, including former Labor leader Shimon Peres.

The new party, which adopted a centrist political platform, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, emerged as a major political force in Israel, with most polls indicating that it would win the coming parliamentary election, allowing it to form a coalition with Labor that could control the 120-member Knesset (Parliament).

The Likud, led by Sharon’s opponent Benjamin Netanyahu, who campaigned against the withdrawal from Gaza, would have probably received a little more than 10 seats. While backing the withdrawal from Gaza and a construction by the Israelis of a "security fence" separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, the Bush administration has continued to stress its commitment to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Mahmoud Abbas that would lead to a final status agreement and the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.

However, several issues such as the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem have remained major stumbling blocks to reaching an Israeli-Palestinian accord. At the same time, there were signs that Abbas and his more moderate Fatah movement were losing support among the Palestinians and that the radical Islamist Hamas, that rejects Israel’s existence, could gain power in the coming parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza. The Bush Administration wasn’t interested in tackling these issues and it’s doubtful that it could serve as an “honest broker” in any negotiations since its positions on them are quite close to that of the Israeli side.

But the growing power of Sharon and his Kadima party and the support they enjoyed in Israel helped create the impression that there was light at the end of the tunnel as far as the Israeli-Palestinian issue was concerned. It also played into the hands of the Bush administration by promoting its spin that it was “doing something” to bring peace to the Holy Land. In reality, the administration wasn’t promoting any major “peace process” and even if Sharon remained in power, it’s unlikely that Bush and his aides would be launching any dramatic diplomatic effort to make peace in Israel/Palestine.

With the Bush administration’s plan of bringing order to a unified and democratic Iraq facing major hurdles, the unilateral moves by Sharon helped create the (false) sense that some progress could be made by the Americans on Israel/Palestine, keeping alive the hopes that the Bush administration’s Middle East policies were bearing some fruit and helping it to maintain the support for these policies in the US and abroad.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Sharon’s stroke has caused so much anxiety in Washington. While Sharon’s willingness to withdraw from most of the occupied Palestinian territories seems to enjoy the support of a clear majority of Israelis — in fact, a recent poll suggested that close to 50 per cent of Israelis were willing to permit the Palestinians to establish their capital in East Jerusalem — it’s not clear yet whether Kadima will succeed in maintaining its unity without Sharon at the top.

The concerns among US officials — that Sharon’s condition and the continuing political instability and violence among the Palestinians — could play into the hands of the Likud and Netanyahu.

Indeed, while Sharon was struggling for his life, Netanyahu and some his neoconservative supporters in Washington were already expressing their hopes that Sharon’s demise would help their political man to return to power. It’s not the first time that the death of an Israeli statesman is playing into the hands of Netanyahu and weakening the position of the more moderate Israeli forces. The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a Jewish terrorist in 1995 helped create the conditions for the election of Netanyahu as Prime Minister and the eventual collapse of the Oslo Peace Process.

Even under the best-case scenario, the expectation in Washington is that the political uncertainty in the Palestinian and Israeli camps would make it close to impossible for the Americans to reenergize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the near future.

Against the backdrop of the continuing mess in Iraq and the deadlocked negotiations on resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis, a stalled peace process in the Holy Land would only highlight the failure of the Bush administration to achieve its long-term goals in the Middle East.

That the central banks of China and other Asian economies are paying for it, is probably the most intriguing element in this evolving story.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his blog.

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