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A shadow across the Mideast

January 05, 2006

ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER ARIEL SHARON'S stroke jeopardizes an already halting peace process with the Palestinians. Until the March elections, Israelis cannot be sure what policy a new government will follow; Palestinian uncertainty will be still deeper.

As we write this, Sharon had suffered a major stroke and his survival was uncertain. Even in the unlikely prospect of a complete recovery, it is probable that his political career is over.

As army general and, later, political leader, Sharon was an architect of the policy of settling Israelis in territory won in the 1967 war with Arab nations. But he shrewdly concluded that the settlements in Gaza were too costly to defend and that they jeopardized Israel's security more than they enhanced it, so last year he ordered them demolished. That trade of land for peace brought the wrath of the country's right wing, but it resonated with much of the nation. Leaving Gaza also made it likely that many West Bank settlements would be abandoned if Sharon won reelection, this time as leader of a centrist political party he founded only two months ago.

Sharon's abandonment of the Likud Party, in which he was a stalwart for decades, put the party's leadership in the hands of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the Gaza withdrawal. As Israel's leader, Netanyahu stonewalled Palestinians and was decisively defeated in 1999 by Ehud Barak, who tried harder to deal with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. When Barak's coalition government collapsed, Sharon returned to office.

U.S. pressure plays a big part in how Israel deals with the Palestinians. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's hands-on diplomacy in November gave the final push in persuading Israel to let the Palestinians for the first time control one of their borders, the crossing from Gaza into Egypt. Israel has not fulfilled its agreement to allow Palestinian bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank, and terrorist shelling of Israel from Gaza reinforces Israel's security fears.

Until Israel sorts out its own politics, Washington will have to watch from the sidelines but be ready to help if deeper problems arise between the Jewish state and the Palestinians. After a winner emerges in March -- either from Likud, Sharon's Kadima Party or the Labor Party now led by Amir Peretz -- the U.S. can step back in.

There is a chance that Ehud Olmert -- Sharon's deputy prime minister and a Kadima Party leader -- will exhibit enough leadership as acting prime minister to boost his stock with voters. The performance of Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, in Palestinian parliamentary elections Jan. 25 also will influence the Israeli election.

If Palestinians reject Hamas and instead give strong support to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, it would help the peace process. So would a defeat of the Netanyahu-led Likud. But Sharon's stroke introduces an unwelcome additional uncertainty into the chaotic political process in both the Palestinian territories and Israel.

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