Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Missed door or new window?

The stroke that hit Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and put him out of political circulation early this month and ahead of Palestinian and Israeli elections has also spooked the wheels of regional politics in the short term. Sharon was deemed as the only Israeli leader who could adopt and push through difficult and bold decisions in order to make even an Israeli version of peace with the Palestinians based on relinquishing part of the territories occupied since 1967. However, regardless of fresh strategies and policies and whoever emerges as Sharon's successor, the core picture has not changed much and is unlikely to change either because of the uncompromising positions of the two sides, writes PV Vivekanand.

Some see Sharon's demise from the political scene as a missed opportunity for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Some interpret it as a major setback for the Bush administration's hopes of resolving the Palestinian problem and removing one of major causes of anti-US sentiments in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Others see it as blessing in disguise because Sharon's vision of peace with the Palestinians would only have aggravated the conflict and his departure from the scene clears the way for more pragmatic Israeli forces to work for a more equitable solution than Sharon envisaged. Yet some others believe that uncompromising hardliners would take over the Israeli political scene in Sharon's absence and damage all prospects for fair and just peace.
One thing is abundantly clear: Uncertainty is the only certainty in the post-Sharon political equation in the run-up to the March elections in Israel. Any meaningful movement in the so-called peace process would remain frozen, and the result of Palestinian legislative elections this month would emerge as a key factor that would influence the course of all efforts for an Israeli-Palestinian solution.
Until Tuesday, it was assumed that Sharon's health crisis could only worsen and thus threaten the chances of his new party, Kadima, securing a dominating number of seats in the March elections to the Knesset (parliament) without a charismatic leader able to keep its ranks of leftists and rightists together. However, doctors declared on Tuesday that Sharon was out of immediate danger and could improve in the weeks ahead although a physical return to active politics ahead of the elections has been ruled out. The extent of the damage his brain suffered also remains to be assessed.
The assertion that he is out of danger meant that he would remain a father figure — a newly created image following the massive stroke he suffered on Jan.4 — and his party could do well as expected in the polls.
Surveys have showed that Kadima has even boosted its public approval ratings despite Sharon's collapse.
The party leads the list of expected winners in the elections, followed by the Labour party led by trade union leader Amir Peretz, and Sharon's former right-wing Likud chaired by Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to two recent surveys, Kadima, which is free to forge an alliance with the Labour, would win 44 and 45 seats in the 120-member parliament, Labour 16 to 18, and Likud between 13 and 15.
Before Sharon collapsed, polls showed that Kadima could bag 40 seats.

Leadership vacuum

In real terms, Sharon has left a leadership vacuum that is unlikely to be filled by any other Israeli leader with matching political acumen and strength.
Ehud Olmert, who inherited Sharon's mantle only because he happened to be deputy prime minister and thus the legal interim successor for 100 days, is not seen to possess what it takes to lead Israel. He does not have the stature and authority to make the kind of bold decisions for which Sharon acquired fame and also became notorious as "Mr Bulldozer" during his military and political careers since the 1960s.
Elderly statesman Shimon Peres of the Labour Party, who has served as prime minister in the past, has aligned himself with Kadima but he has affirmed that he has no prime ministerial ambitions. In any event, he is no longer leader of his party, which in any case is not expected to take a dominating position in the elections.
With Olmert deemed as too weak for a prime minister, and given that Israelis elect their prime minister through direct voting parallel to the parliamentary elections, the room is wider for Netanyahu, Sharon's arch-rival who quit the government in protest against the prime minister's decision to end Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip last year.
Netanyahu's departure from the cabinet was largely a political gimmick aimed at challenging Sharon in the Likud bloc, the party to which both belonged before the latter quit and set up Kadima. Sharon is also one of the founders of Likud, which was formed 30 years ago.
During the mid-90s, after Israel handed over most of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians and allowed the late Yasser Arafat to set up his base there under the interim 1993 Oslo agreements, Netanyahu had always insisted that he would have nothing to do with the Mediterranean coastal strip and would gladly give up the entire territory to the Palestinians. He pledged to retain the West Bank at whatever the cost and argued that continued occupation of the Gaza Strip was too costly and a source of continued trouble for Israel.
His opposition to Sharon's move to quit Gaza was a dramatic reversal of that position, a fact that went largely unnoticed in the media.
The switch was obviously aimed at currying political favour with Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.
Netanyahu could consolidate his position by appealing to the "security" mindset of the Israelis as well as claiming to represent Israel "nationalism" that rules out the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank.
On the other hand, analysts say that Sharon, by evacuating the Gaza Strip and making bold statements, has prepared his people to accept that it is not in the country's interest to hang on to the occupied territories and that some compromises have to be made.
According to political analyst Bary Rubin, Sharon "embodied a new national consensus, accepted by at least two-thirds of the population, that reflects deep-seated changes in the country and its situation."
"From the left comes the idea that, in return for full peace, Israel is ready to withdraw from most of the territory captured in 1967 and accept a Palestinian state. From the right, the consensus acknowledges that currently there is no Palestinian partner for real peace.
"The left's advocacy of territorial withdrawal gained currency as a result of a general recognition that holding onto land, especially Palestinian-populated areas, is not in the national interest. Israel does not intend to claim this land in the future, never derived any economic benefit from it, and now regards staying there as a security problem rather than an asset. With the cold war over, the USSR gone, and the Arab world weakened, a conventional war with the armies of Arab states is no longer likely, rendering obsolete the strategic considerations underlying Israel's occupation of this territory."
That is Sharon's legacy, Rubin argues, adding that "it was Sharon who sensed a sea change in Israeli sentiment and acted upon it. But Sharon was the messenger, not the message. The era of Israeli pragmatism that he opened will not end with his departure."
Well, not many are sure how far the perceived pragmatism would go.

Recipe for trouble

The compromises advocated by Sharon could only lead to creating more troubles on both sides.
It was leaked out in late December that Sharon's vision of peace with the Palestinians was based on further unilateral moves: withdrawal from certain selected areas of the West Bank, and allowing for a temporary Palestinian state in part of the West Bank and in Gaza.
That was seen as a perfect recipe for trouble since evacuating parts of the West Bank without consulting the Palestinians would not address the core issues such as the status of Arab East Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and this means setting a fertile ground for not only fomenting Palestinian unrest and armed resistance but also for extremist groups like Al Qaeda and others to grow roots in Palestine.
Unilateral withdrawals would be touted by armed groups as their victory.
That is a prospect that is worrying the Americans, and that explains the intense contacts between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and this week's arrival in the Middle East of two American troubleshooters, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams.
Effectively, Sharon had engineered the US into a position where Washington relied on him to take initiatives towards a settlement with the Palestinians, and his absence from the scene has left the Bush administration wondering what direction it should take to keep the so-called peace process alive and kicking.
Sharon had skillfully nudged President George W Bush into endorsing the Israeli position that the Jewish state would retain the bulk of the illegal settlements it has built in the West Bank and that the Palestinian refugees' right of return was not an issue that would be entertained.
For most people in the Middle East, it was shocking and surprising to hear Bush describe Sharon "as a man of peace," given the Israeli prime minister's consistent record of obvious hostility towards the Palestinians and his proven role in the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in two Beirut camps as well as his approval of heavy-handed military action against Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sharon also gathered notoriety by professing that Jordan was the "alternative homeland" for the Palestinians and advocated the expulsion of Arab Israelis and Palestinians across the River Jordan.
Indeed, Bush is now worried that without Sharon in the scene he may have lost the one chance he will get to realise his declared goal of seeing two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace before his term ends in 2007.
"Bush has a stance but not a strategy" for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, says William Quandt, who as a senior White House advisor during the Carter administration helped negotiate the Camp David accords. "He supported Sharon," Quandt told the Los Angeles Times recently.
Meaningful progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian settlement would help Bush on several fronts: It would tone down criticism from the Europeans, a diversion from the crisis in Iraq and perhaps dilution in the enthusiasm of Arab volunteers to fight the US forces there, and strengthening his hand in dealing with Iran, whose nuclear programmes are a source of concern for Israel and thus also to the US.
The immediate American priority — as represented in the Welsh-Abrams mission — is to shore up the agreements made with Sharon linked to the withdrawal from Gaza and prevent any small incident from spinning out of control in the new climate of uncertainty and in the absence of strong leadership.

Palestinian view

The Palestinians loath Sharon for his record of actions against them.
A Palestinian group, the Popular Resistance Committees, issued a statement hailing "the downfall of Dracula."
Sharon will remain forever associated with the 1982 massacres in Beirut where he, as Israeli defence minister, invaded Lebanon to rout the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and allowed allied Lebanese militiamen to slaughter hundreds of Palestinians, including women and children, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of the Lebanese capital.
The Palestinian sentiment has only been intensified by his project of building a 700-kilometre "separation" wall crisscrossing the West Bank that would eventually be the "border" between Israel and Palestinian areas, but would take in large swaths of Palestinian territory in the name of "security" for Israelis — Jewish settlers living in the illegal colonies built on occupied territory.
Abbas, the Palestinian president who is maintaining a platform of non-violence as the ground for a negotiated settlement with Israel, has expressed his concerns over Sharon's status to Israeli leaders. Some of his associates, including Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath and Saeb Erakat, a negotiator, fear that the vacuum left behind by Sharon would only spell trouble for the Palestinians.
"Sharon's absence could turn things upside down," according to Erekat, who is fearful that as Israeli political factions competed to fill the void, the Israeli military might step up its offensive against Palestinian resistance groups.
"There is a lot of uncertainty about how and where the Israelis will go with the end of the Sharon era," says Shaath.
Palestinians acknowledge that Sharon had the ability to take and implement bold decisions that no other Israeli leader would dare to take let alone implement, but that is no consolation for them.
According to Hani Al Masri, a Palestinian political analyst, Sharon had already done massive damage to the Palestinian cause by erasing the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees from the centrestage with Washington's support and his departure from active politics would be no loss for the Palestinians.
"In the short term, the situation will be worse for the Palestinians because of the confusion and power vacuum that Sharon's absence will leave, just like what happened when Arafat died" in 2004, said Masri. "But in the long term, it will be better for the Palestinians because Israel will not have the strong leader it just lost."
Masri also feels that Israeli power politics dictate that Sharon's successor might be tempted to take an even harder line against the Palestinians in order to consolidate domestic support.
Helping any Sharon successor would be the financial straits of the PNA, which is struggling with a cash crunch to pay staff salaries. Donor countries are applying pressure for more transparency and accountability, but the changes are too slow if only because of the perceived need to keep fractional leaders satisfied. The PNA has been accused of rampant corruption, and the donors are firm that Abbas remove graft from the authority's corridors.
The net sum of the situation is that the PNA could not afford to hang on to "hardline" demands and would come under intense pressure make Israeli-dictated compromises sooner or later on the fundamental issues. It would then depend on Sharon's successor to make the best of the situation and seek to impose an Israeli-tailored version of peace on the Palestinians.

American concern

The US is anxious to ensure that the Palestinians do indeed vote on Jan.25 as scheduled because Washington knows that delays would only mean strengthening of groups like Hamas as opposed to Abbas's mainstream Fatah.
Rice said last week that there was no reason to delay the elections as Palestinian leaders have threatened.
"It's our view that they ought to be held and that people ought to campaign and put themselves on the line and try to convince the population that they will do better," Rice said. At the same time, the US also wants to make sure that the elections do not produce Hamas as the winner.
A Hamas victory of a sizable number of seats — around 40 per cent according to opinion poll predictions  —  in the Palestinian legislative assembly is enough to sound the death bell for the all-too-important "road map for peace" — a proposal drafted and endorsed by the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. The Palestinians have also accepted it, and Israel says that it also accepts it but with reservations, and hence the only blueprint on the table.
The proposal demands that the Palestinian National Authority disarm all militants, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is affiliated with Abbas's Fatah itself.
The three groups are not ready to disarm and this in itself is a non-starter for any movement on the road map.
The Palestinians seem to be unsure of how to take Sharon's indisposition, but they know that they could not expect some of their key demands to be met in a potential agreement if it were to be negotiated with him.
On the two key issues, Jerusalem and refugees' right of return, Sharon is known to be adamant that he would not accept the Palestinian demands.
Kadima's platform calls for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but it is the perceived shape of the new state that is worrisome.
It has been reported that Sharon was pushing the US to pressure the Palestinians into accepting more West Bank territory instead of Arab East Jerusalem. However, no Palestinian leader would be able to accept such a proposal, just as no Israeli leader would be ready to give up Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Again, a non-starter.
Predictably, hardline groups such as Hamas and others see Sharon's political demise as inconsequential since they believe that no Israeli leader would ever make a fair and just peace agreement with the Palestinians. Indeed, Hamas's platform is based on a call that the state of Israel be dismantled, with all Jews who migrated there return to their places of origin, leaving pre-1948 Palestine where an Islamic state should be created.
So, where is the "missed opportunity"?