Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The future without Ariel Sharon Jan. 4, 2006

A future without Ariel Sharon
Arab American Media Syndicate, Jan. 4, 2006
By Ray Hanania

Whether or not Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon survives his most recent stroke may not matter to the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Someone else will probably take over the reigns of Israeli politics and they might not be able to continue with Sharon's vision.

Sharon’s demise from politics, and possible death, would be very inopportune not just for Israelis, but for Palestinians, too.

The secular Palestinian leadership today face two battles. The first is the endless conflict with Israel and their inability to force concessions from Israel to result in an acceptable compromise Palestinian State that includes a contiguous West Bank land mass and sovereignty in East Jerusalem at its heart.

But the second is more serious as secular Palestinian leaders find themselves in a greater struggle today against the growing Islamic militant movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not as strong nor is he as popular as his predecessor, the late President Yasser Arafat. Although disliked by Israelis, Arafat had the power to restrain Hamas and prevent the religious movement from overpowering his own Fatah organization.

In his final years, Arafat’s powers weakened. A Fatah militant splinter group, the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, joined rival Hamas in embracing religious fundamentalism and suicide bombings against Israel.

Palestinians will not show as much sympathy for Sharon’s personal tragedies as they did for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a decade ago. But Sharon’s unilateral moves may have offered secular Palestinians their only immediate way out of mounting political troubles.

Sharon planned to impose his own vision of a peace plan, unilaterally. Though not to the liking of the Palestinians, they could have lived with it. Sharon's peace would have allowed Abbas to refocus on restoring secular authority in the face of the growing popularity of Hamas.

Sharon is the odd couple partner to peace. A military man all his life, to Palestinians, his legacy is stained with much blood dating back to his days as a border unit commander in the 1950s. A longtime hardliner and a Godfather of the Israeli settler movement.

But in recent years, Sharon seemed to mellow. Maybe it was old age. Sharon saw a chance to define his legacy as a man of peace. Or, maybe Sharon came to accept the popular notion of Israeli military colleagues that there is no military solution to the conflict.

Any and all of those reasons may have prompted him to change.

Sharon helped hurry the collapse of bilateral peace negotiations with the Palestinians in 2000 standing under the shadow of the al-Aqsa Mosque and prompting Palestinians into a second, more religiously defined Intifada.

As an alternative to peace, Sharon build the Wall, a concrete, razor-wire and fence barrier built on occupied Palestinian lands in the West Bank. Although at first, Israelis insisted the it was temporary, most now accept that Sharon’s Wall will define the boundaries separating Israel from a Palestinian State, a state most Israelis accept as inevitable.

With Arafat out of the way, and no equivalent charismatic Palestinian successor who shared the power Arafat once enjoyed, Sharon was free to take even more dramatic steps. Sharon withdrew Israeli soldiers, dismantled 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and also four smaller settlements in the Northern West Bank. Sharon made it clear he would close more settlements and withdraw from much of the West Bank, too.

Although Sharon’s definition of a Palestinian State is far short of what Ehud Barak reportedly offered Arafat in the final days of the peace process, it would have given Abbas and other secular Palestinians the opportunity to shift their focus away from Israel and toward their real threat, Hamas.

For many years, Hamas has always been the wild card in Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Whenever Palestinians and Israelis appeared to achieve a peace agreement that might lead to more peace, Hamas stepped in with violence and in 1994, suicide bombings. As the bombings increased, Israeli public opinion against the Palestinians hardened.

Arafat could not stop Hamas, but he could keep Palestinians from rallying around the terrorist organization's ranks. During most of the ARafat years, Hamas influence was restricted to certain areas of Gaza. That quickly changed following Arafat's death and Hamas popularity has grown not only on the street but also at the election booth.

Many Palestinians will cheer Sharon’s demise, in much the same way that Israelis rejoiced in Arafat’s death. But in the end, Israelis may find themselves in the same situation as Palestinian’s after Arafat’s death.

It is possible that no other Israeli successor will enjoy the same power or popularity that Sharon enjoyed, and that may empower his foes to block further withdrawals.

Abbas faces a more difficult struggle with Hamas that will further paralyze his administration and further weaken support for compromise with Israel.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning Palestinian American columnist and author. He can be reached at


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