What Sharon's Stroke Means
by Leon Hadar
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
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).
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
the central banks of China and other Asian economies are paying
for it, is probably the most intriguing element in this evolving
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
© 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.