Will Sharon’s legacy in the Middle East be an enduring one or his likely departure from politics will be as destabilizing for Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as some observers suggest?
Israel’s political establishment is displaying an image of stability and continuity. Sharon’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, the man who formulated the Sharon doctrine of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians, was swiftly installed as acting prime minister earlier this month. Since then Mr. Olmert has issued directives in line with that policy. For example, last week, he ordered the Defense Ministry to devise a plan for the evacuation of 20 illegal Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank, and warned that violations of law by settlers would not be tolerated.
According to Ariel Cohen of The Heritage Foundation in Washington, Sharon’s doctrine embodies a new national consensus, accepted by a majority of Israelis. He says from the left comes the idea that for full peace Israel must withdraw from most of the territory captured in the Arab-Israeli six-day war in 1967 and accept a Palestinian state; and from the right comes the assessment that there is no Palestinian partner for real peace. e “Israelis are very tired of the warfare they are engaged in now for six or seven decades”, says Ariel Cohen.
“Israelis are willing to follow Sharon’s logic and say, ‘Well, if we don’t have a peace partner among the Palestinians we will follow Sharon’s logic and just exit unilaterally.’ They do believe that by unilaterally disengaging, they can reduce friction with the Palestinians.”
Kadima Leads in the Polls
In addition to the centrist Kadima party, Israel’s March 28th parliamentary elections will offer a traditional choice between the old left and right: the Labor Party under the leadership of Amir Peretz and the Likud Party led by Benjamin Netanyahu. In opinion polls conducted after Ariel Sharon’s stroke, the Kadima held a strong lead. Still, few analysts predict that the party will sweep the elections. They say Israel’s next government will likely be a coalition dominated by Kadima.
But some observers, including Ariel Cohen of The Heritage Foundation contend a lot depends on the results of the Palestinian elections scheduled for January 25th. He says an election victory by the Islamist movement, Hamas, which has been hostile to Israel, could shift public opinion in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Benjamin Netanyahu vs. Hamas
Analyst Ariel Cohen argues, “It’s highly likely that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others, unfortunately, will engage in a terror campaign somewhere between January and March. In 1996 such a terror campaign by Hamas and Jihad played into the hands of Netanyahu. This time, it may play in the hands of Netanyahu again.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, who takes a tough stand toward the Palestinian violence against Israel, opposed Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and is accused by his opponents of sabotaging the Oslo Peace Accords during his first term as prime minister in the mid-1990s.
Naseer Aruri, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts says Palestinians, in the anticipation of Mr. Netanyahu’s election may turn to Hamas. “If there are strong indications that the winner in Israel might be Netanyahu and the extreme right wing that just might encourage the average Palestinian voter to vote for Hamas. The Palestinians would be saying, “Our concessions have bottomed out and they can not bottom out more than that. Therefore, if they are going to elect hardliners, we are going to elect at least a group that showed itself not to be for too many concessions.”
Professor Aruri says Hamas’ popularity stems partly from Palestinian fears that Israel’s unilateral actions in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will in the end prevent the Palestinians from forming a viable, independent state.
Political Integration of Islamists
The Belgium-based International Crisis Group - I.C.G, predicts that Hamas, designated by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, will soon join the Palestinian legislature. The West and Israel have threatened to cut ties with the already badly frayed Palestinian Authority should Hamas play a more prominent role. But the I.C.G. warns that the international community has little leverage over Hamas and suggests the international community encourage Hamas’ political integration and the decommissioning of its military wing.
Philip Wilcox was U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism during the Clinton Administration and is now Executive Director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington. He agrees with the need for more forceful diplomacy. “There is a danger that the Palestinian society, having after many years abandoned the concept of armed struggle and destruction of Israel and accepted a two-state solution, may revert to rejectionism and armed struggle if the Islamists come to power and do not change their views."
Ambassador Wilcox adds that the likelihood of the return to an extremist trend in Palestine could be reduced with more effective external diplomacy and American leadership. He says, "That would give the Palestinian people hope that there is a way out of this mess. And while we would serve the Palestinian hopes for justice and liberation, we would simultaneously the most fundamental need of the Israelis, that is for peace and security in a democratic Jewish state.”
The alternative, says Philip Wilcox, is further chaos and turmoil in the already fractured Middle East.
Interviews for this report were done by Jeffrey Young.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.