New Israeli PM Should Work With Palestine 17.1.2006

New Israeli PM should work with Palestine

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Jakarta Post, Indonesia

While Ariel Sharon, fighter all his life, is still struggling to survive his debilitating stroke, it is becoming clear that he will not be able serve out his term as Prime Minister of Israel. Furthermore he will not be able to run in the parliamentary elections in March this year, elections in which he and his party "Kadima", created ad-hoc around his persona, were expected to win easily.

 This unexpected development creates a great amount of unease among all parties to the Middle East conflict. The Israeli public, to a large degree, had developed an almost blind faith in Sharon's uncanny aptitude to do "the right thing", without him ever feeling the need to subject his plans, ahead of time, to public scrutiny. Sharon didn't really have a policy, he was the ultimate crisis-manager and the public was more than willing to let him continue manage crises, including those created by himself, after the elections.

 The U.S. Government, ever supportive of Israel's strongman, felt equally comfortable with Sharon and trusted his ability to execute major changes in direction to put some movement into the languishing Peace Process, even if it was done unilaterally, haphazardly and not always in the most constructive way.

 The Palestinians who after Arafat's demise find themselves in the midst of total chaos created, to a large degree, by their own inability to support a strong legitimate leadership, must be worried that Israel too is now, temporarily, in political disarray and not in a position to formulate a cogent policy until the March elections establish a clearer picture.

 Many Arab nations as well, with Egypt in the lead, had begun to feel reassured by Sharon's power to deliver after the Gaza withdrawal proved that he was capable of getting Israel to do what it had never done before, remove settlements from territories that belonged to the Palestinians. They will miss him and the power he projected, quite remarkable for a man whose standing in the Arab world had, for many years, been defined by Israel's ill-conceived invasion of Lebanon and his responsibility in not preventing the Sabra and Shattila massacre.

 The ball is now squarely in the court of the Israeli electorate. After not having to really decide what they want for years and not having to deal seriously with the questions regarding the future of the territories, Ariel Sharon, after all, knew best and didn't even have to explain it, Israelis will now have to acquaint themselves with the issues. They will have to look at the different candidates none of whom even remotely generates the trust that Sharon had ingenerated and that was the basis for the considerable clout he wielded, not only in Israel but among political leaders of the world.

 The Muslim world would do well to use this period for introspection, try to help the Palestinians to overcome their internal chaos, actively let the Israeli electorate know that Israel has a place among the nations in the Middle East and that the rantings of Iran's President Ahmedinajad are not representative of the Muslim world in general. This would help Israelis decide on a courageous political leadership, one that would be willing to negotiate with Palestinians over a final status agreement and implement long-overdue withdrawals, withdrawals that Sharon was seriously contemplating but unlike his political heirs will have to, never needed to articulate in detail.

 The writer is a retired (Israeli) diplomat who served in South East Asia from 2000-2003.

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