'Israel and the Palestinians face the prospect of a political vacuum'
Ariel Sharon's probable disappearance from the Middle East's political stage
matters because his was the only show in town. After years of stalemate, when
Yasser Arafat's charisma and energy were gradually fading, and when successive
Israeli governments were keener on containment than compromise, Mr Sharon
seemed to offer a way forward. This physical and political giant, loved and
loathed in equal measure, had started the difficult task of creating a solution
to the Middle East crisis - strictly according to his own vision.
The Palestinians were not happy with that vision. Arabs as a whole hate Mr
Sharon more than any other Israeli leader, past or present. He is the man they
refer to as "the Butcher", the man who commanded a unit that blew up 50 homes
in the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953.
Decades later, he led the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After that, an
official inquiry in Israel decided that he was indirectly responsible for the
massacres carried out by right-wing Lebanese Christian militiamen in the
Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. More recently, Mr Sharon
ordered numerous military forays into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in
attempts to eliminate leading figures in the Palestinian intifada.
Yet Mr Sharon was also the Israeli leader who faced up to critics inside and
outside the right-wing Likud bloc that he helped to create. He ordered the
military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He was respected - grudgingly by
Palestinian leaders - as a strong man with a track record for decisive action.
He had the confidence to take risks, and was able to win over doubters
because he showed that he had the courage of his convictions. No other living
Israeli leader would have been able to convince his people of the need to
relinquish Gaza and allow the Palestinians to have their own state - albeit
sealed off by a security barrier and with a large Jewish presence on Arab land.
if Mr Sharon is not able to return to his post, Israel and the Palestinians
face the prospect of a political vacuum. Everything that seemed so certain just
a few days ago suddenly looks vulnerable. For example, does the Kadima party,
founded by Mr Sharon when he abandoned the Likud bloc late last year, have the
momentum to carry the centre-Right and centre-Left to victory in the March
general elections, without the presence of its founder? Probably not, if the
charisma of the remaining party hierarchy is a factor.
Mr Sharon's deputy, Ehud Olmert, is competent as a politician, but he is a
dwarf when matched against the illustrious military and political career of Mr
Sharon. The former Labour Party leader, Shimon Peres, is a veteran of Israeli
politics, but lacks the common touch, and has been associated in the minds of
the electorate with too many defeats to be regarded as a man who might forge
peace with absolute guarantees of security for the Jewish state.
At the same time, those politicians who remained in Likud - notably its
leader, Binyamin Netanyahu - will see Mr Sharon's eclipse as a miracle, an
unexpected lifeline. Likud's election campaign is likely to focus on what the
party believes were Mr Sharon's reckless concessions to the Palestinians.
For their part, Palestinian leaders are ambivalent about the future. While
most believed that Israel's abandonment of Gaza was carried out to allow Mr
Sharon to consolidate its hold on the West Bank, they also recognised the
significance of a politically tough and popular Israeli prime minister working
for the creation of a Palestinian state. The mainstream political leadership,
which coalesced around Mahmoud Abbas, could point to possible progress towards
a negotiated deal with Israel.
In the absence of Mr Sharon, further progress seems unlikely. This, in turn,
would leave Mr Abbas and his colleagues looking weak in the eyes of the
Palestinian electorate, and unable to point to measures that might improve the
economic and social conditions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Tension
between the Palestinian Authority and Islamic groups which has surfaced in Gaza
over recent days would almost certainly erupt elsewhere. Secular and Christian
Palestinians would feel even more isolated than before.
In-fighting among the Palestinians would also create unease in Israel,
handing Mr Netanyahu a welcome pretext to exploit the security fears of the
electorate in the run-up to polling day.
All of this leaves those seeking a negotiated settlement - Israelis and
Palestinians - praying for the recovery of arguably the region's greatest
warmonger, who, in the absence of any one else, looks today like a man of peace.