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Ailing Sharon leaves political void
Scripps Howard News Service


January 05, 2006

The devastating stroke that has felled Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came at a precarious moment in the roiling Mideast region, a time of extraordinary political turmoil but also one in which the momentum for peace was stronger than it had been in a decade.

One of the last of Israel's founding lions who fought for the nation's birth 58 years ago, Sharon battled for his life Thursday in a Jerusalem hospital after seven hours of surgery to stanch bleeding in his brain following a cerebral hemorrhage Wednesday.

His official powers were turned over to his deputy prime minister, and Israeli leaders announced that the elections already scheduled for March 28 would proceed.




With the prognosis dire for the return of the 77-year-old former general to office, Israel, as well as the Palestinian Authority, White House and Arab world, braced to ride the aftershocks that already have begun.

"There is definitely going to be a huge void," said Alon Pinkas, formerly Israel's general consul in New York.

Q: What will be the effects in Israel of the apparent end of the Sharon era?

Experts say the repercussions will significantly shake the Jewish state, which stands at one of the most pivotal crossroads of its recent history without an apparent successor of similar stature to take the wheel.

Last year, Sharon, long the personification of the hard-line approach to Israel's Arab enemies, engineered what once would have been unthinkable to him: the expulsion last summer of about 9,000 Jewish settlers from the West Bank and the end of 38-years of Israeli control of the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Next, the former soldier known for his daring tactics and risk-taking bent triggered an internal Israeli earthquake, joining forces with some of his most passionate past opponents to create a centrist political party. One critic-turned-ally is former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, a longtime dove who became acting prime minister Wednesday.

The new party - called "Kadima," which means "forward" in Hebrew - struck a chord with a sizable majority of Israelis who view its vision as the best path to peace with the Palestinians. Sharon and his party were expected to sweep the March parliamentary elections.

Now, the survival of the party, of which Sharon is regarded as the heart, is in as much peril as he is. Analysts suggest Israel could revert to its previously polarized condition, which created a stalemate in the peace process and a cacophony of internal Israeli disharmony.

Q: What will be the effects for the Palestinians?

Perhaps no Israeli is hated as much by the Palestinians as is Sharon, who won their eternal enmity for his indirect role in a massacre of Palestinian refugees after the ill-fated 1982 Israel invasion of Lebanon.

So despised is Sharon that his 2001 appearance at a holy site in Jerusalem - one claimed by both Jews and Muslims - triggered years of a bloody "intifada," or uprising, by Palestinians and the subsequent Israeli retaliation that leveled towns and killed thousands. Sharon's recent decision to encircle Israel in a security fence also has spawned outrage.

Still, Sharon won grudging acknowledgment for stepping forward to work for a solution to the conflict once Palestinian icon Yasser Arafat had passed from power, as well as for his return of the Gaza Strip and his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Two of Sharon's possible successors could radically change the climate. One, perpetual hawk Benjamin Netanyahu, is styling himself as the leader of Israeli settlers and others who reject accommodations with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu replaces Sharon, any more transfer of land to the Palestinians would be unlikely and a harder hand would govern Israeli responses to terror attacks.

The other contender, Amir Peretz, would likely suit the Palestinians better. A union leader, Peretz now heads the Labor Party and believes Israel should grant most Palestinian demands for a homeland.

This cataclysmic change in Israel also comes as the Palestinians are embroiled in their own internal conflict. Pivotal parliamentary elections are slated for Jan. 25, but there have been calls for delay because of the eruption of chaos spurred by political infighting in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is under fire from his own Fatah party movement, which is beset by accusations of corruption. Abbas - and many Israelis - fear the turmoil could open the door to victory by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for scores of terror attacks, and calls for Israel's destruction and the establishment of an Islamic state.

Q: Will the United States feel the effects of the exit of Sharon from the political trenches?

Very much so. With much of his foreign policy under fire at home and abroad, President Bush had showcased the developing Palestinian-Israeli thaw as a bright spot of his administration's efforts overseas. Now, a shadow of renewed war looms there, as well.

Bush has vowed to see the creation of a Palestinian state before the end of his second term, a landmark achievement that would burnish his presidential legacy. That goal is now in jeopardy.

And a new crisis in the Middle East is about the last thing needed by an administration already under siege by foreign crises and criticism of its policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Europe, Venezuela, North Korea, and other spots.


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