Sharon’s Demise Gives Analysts the Jitters

Nearly a week after a massive stroke effectively removed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from Israeli politics, the outlook in Washington is mostly worried and pessimistic.

The administration of President George W. Bush, who personally clearly admired the former general and offered strong backing for both his harsh crackdown against the second Palestinian Intifada and his unilateral disengagement from Gaza, made little secret of its hope that Sharon’s new centrist party, Kadima, would sweep the March 28 elections.

Such a victory, which before Sharon’s stroke had been estimated at a plurality of 40 seats or more, would, it was believed in Washington, put him in a strong position to dismantle at least some Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

This would add momentum and credibility to a unilateral disengagement strategy that, at the very least, had reduced Arab and European impatience with the continuing impasse in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process under the so-called Road Map.

While Kadima may still emerge with a plurality, it is unlikely to be as strong as it might have been with Sharon heading the lists.

Fears that the party, which is less than two months old, might disintegrate without Sharon’s unifying presence have dissipated over the past week. But it remains unclear whether its de facto leader, Vice-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, will have the stature and authority to make the kind of bold decisions for which Sharon became both famous and infamous during his long military and political careers.

Moreover, Sharon’s demise revives the chances of right-wing Likud Party leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, returning to the premiership, particularly if, between now and the Israeli elections, there is an upsurge in Palestinian rocket or other attacks against Israelis, or if Hamas defeats Fatah in elections in the Palestinian territories scheduled for later this month, according to Shmuel Rosner, chief Washington correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

“I believe Olmert will win,” he told an audience at the Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think tank, Monday. “If there is a major crisis, especially a security crisis, that might change. The only beneficiary can be Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud Party.”

Netanyahu, who opposed the Gaza disengagement and would almost certainly resist pressure to dismantle more Jewish settlements on the West Bank, has argued that Israel should make no more unilateral “concessions” until the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, dismantles terrorist groups, including the military wing of Hamas.

Most analysts in Washington believe that Abbas, who has long stressed the need to co-opt Hamas into the political system before trying to disarm it, has neither the will nor the capacity to militarily subdue the Islamist group without provoking civil war. Hamas candidates swept municipal elections in several key West Bank cities just last month and may be poised to win 40 percent or even more in the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.

Unlike Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), of which it is the leading component, Hamas has never officially conceded Israel’s right to exist, and a particularly strong showing by Hamas, even it falls short of outright victory, is likely to further shake what dwindling confidence Israeli voters have that they have a “Palestinian partner” with whom to make peace.

That would also almost certainly benefit Netanyahu and Likud, as could escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has issued a series of threatening statements against Israel.

Israel’s intelligence agencies have said Iran will pass the point of no return on the enrichment technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon as early as the end of March. Sharon warned last month that Israel would not “accept” Iraq’s acquisition of a nuclear-arms capability, while Netanyahu has called for Israel to attack suspected nuclear sites as it did against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1982.

Iran’s nuclear program and what to do about it are expected to rank at the top of the latest “strategic dialogue” meeting between senior U.S. and Israeli officials in Tel Aviv later this week.

“The decision on attacking Iran might be more important than what happens with the Palestinians,” Rosner said.

It is against this background, as well as the continuing violence in Iraq, that the latest developments – particularly Hamas’ rise and Sharon’s demise – are contributing to pessimism in Washington.

“When you have a moderate leader taken out in Israel and a moderate leader ineffective on the Palestinian side, I think the extremists in the region [are] breathing a sigh of relief and saying, ‘The momentum is on our side now,'” said Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution who served as ambassador to Israel under former President Bill Clinton.

“So it’s not good news, not just for Israel, but for those who want to see, eventually, a settlement of this conflict,” he added.

Richard Haass, the president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who was also a top Middle East policymaker under former President George H.W. Bush, echoed that view in a recent interview in which he noted that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have “leadership that’s both able and willing … to make compromises for peace … [and] make them stick in their own domestic politics.”

Haass, who also served as one of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s principal advisers, said the resulting impasse poses a broader threat to the administration’s regional strategy, particularly if even a Kadima-led government is unable to advance the disengagement on the West Bank.

“What does the United States do if it no longer has the luxury of an Israeli-led disengagement process? There’s simply not the opportunity, or the possibility, of returning to a traditional, negotiated two-party peace process,” he said.

“This potentially is a costly situation for the administration because the Middle East has receded as a political liability for the United States over the last year because of what Sharon did [in disengaging from Gaza]. Absent forward progress, it will come back as a political liability.”

“And this will have implications for everything from the U.S. effort to promote reform in the Arab world and its ability to combat terrorists to relations with Europe,” he said.

Not everyone in Washington is so pessimistic. Jonathan Jacoby, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, said he thinks Olmert, who began his political career as a staunch Likudnik but whose advocacy of disengagement, territorial compromises, and an eventual two-state solution preceded Sharon’s, is “the ideal person for this moment in Israel’s history … because he’s both experienced and extremely pragmatic.”

With the backing of former top security officials, particularly former hardline Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and former Shin Beth director Avi Dichter, Olmert, a lifelong professional politician, could indeed reassure nervous voters almost as effectively as Sharon himself.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.