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After Sharon: Political Fallout for Israel and the Peace Process

Ariel Sharon’s stroke two weeks ago and his incapacitation shook Israeli politics. But this week, Kadima - Israel’s new centrist party founded by Mr. Sharon - chose Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as its party chairman. Aaron Miller, former peace negotiator with the U.S. Department of State, who is currently a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said he thinks Mr. Sharon’s legacy will be a mixed one. More than any other Israeli, he was responsible for the idea of a “Greater Israel,” but he was simultaneously the architect of the death of that idea. Also dead is the idea that the Israelis and Palestinians can reach a conflict-ending agreement, Mr. Miller told host Carol Carol of VOA News Now’s Encounter program.

Robert Lieber, professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, said Sharon was not an ideologue but he was above all committed to Israel’s long-term security interests. Professor Lieber said that as Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon’s major accomplishments were to defeat the second Palestinian intifada, launched in 2000, and to break with his right-wing Likud followers by rejecting the idea that Israel could hold on to Gaza and all of the West Bank. The unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, based on the belief that Israel had no partner for peace on the Palestinian side, and the construction of a security barrier to separate the two peoples, represented the test of Sharon’s leadership, according to Professor Lieber.

He suggested that the prospects for Ehud Olmert and the Kadima Party might be better than many analysts think, partly because it was Mr. Olmert’s original idea on disengagement that Mr. Sharon ultimately embraced.

Aaron Miller agreed that the Kadima Party is probably positioned to form Israel’s next government after Israeli elections at the end of March. But he noted that the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, was losing credibility because of his failure to “deliver both politically and economically” to his people. Mr. Miller said even the most sympathetic supporter of the Palestinians – and he believes they have suffered tragically and deserve their own state – must confront the “undeniable reality” that any government must maintain a monopoly over the forces of violence within its society. And he suggested that the disintegration of Palestinian society might continue with warlords and nationalist clans competing against one another. Mr. Miller predicted that the radical Islamist party Hamas might garner 30 to 40 percent of the vote in this month’s elections, but if they aspired to govern, they would have to “give up the gun.”

Professor Lieber said the Palestinians need a leadership not “compromised by autocracy and terror.” He credited President George W. Bush for being the first president to say that Washington favors a two-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace. But Aaron Miller countered that governing is about setting priorities, and Washington has three priorities in the Middle East – extricating itself from Iraq, supporting reform and democratization in the region, and fighting a war against terror. And until the administration makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a higher priority, little progress is likely to be made. Mr. Miller said he was not talking about brokering negotiations but about adopting a more assertive policy to help Israelis and Palestinians create the “right environment” in which negotiations can take place.

For full audio of the program Encounter USA click here.