The loss of Ariel Sharon's leadership is a blow to the cause of additional Israeli unilateral withdrawals, demographic sanity and the narrowing of the military occupation on the West Bank. Only after Israel's elections of March 28 will we begin to know how well Sharon's successor as prime minister--presumably, though not certainly, Acting PM Ehud Olmert--manages these tasks.
Clearly, Olmert is committed to further withdrawal. Indeed, he proposed it, citing the demographic argument and the danger of falling into a South Africa model, a year before Sharon. In this regard, he may have more strategic understanding than his predecessor, who was essentially a master at tactics, both military and political. But clearly, too, Olmert has none of Sharon's credentials as a warrior hawk, nor his charisma, his grandfatherly image and teflon coating, nor his incredible determination and thick skin in the face of terrible odds. And he is relatively untried in the tasks of an Israeli prime minister. Despite his decades of political experience, Olmert was never minister of defense or foreign affairs, has never worked with Washington on major strategic issues and has never managed negotiations with the Palestinians.
Israeli-Palestinian relations will almost certainly present him with more pressing challenges than disengagement in the immediate post-Sharon era. Sometime in the coming days Olmert may have to decide whether, and how, to allow Palestinian Jerusalemites to vote in the January 25 Palestinian national elections. Avoiding a decision could place the onus of cancellation of those elections on Israel. US administration emissaries David Welch and Elliot Abrams, who were on their way here to find a solution in consultation with Sharon when he became incapacitated, have postponed their trip. Olmert may need more than American help if he is to navigate this pressing issue without losing electoral support or doing damage to Israeli-Palestinian relations. As mayor of Jerusalem for a decade prior to 2003, he largely ignored the needs of his Palestinian residents.
Yet even the Jerusalem vote question may pale in the coming weeks--if the authority of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) continues to falter in the face of internal violence and anarchy inflicted largely by his own Fateh supporters, and if Hamas wins the January 25 elections, or even gains decisive veto-power within the Legislative Council. Many Israelis and friends of Israel will have a knee-jerk inclination to blurt out, "Arik would have known what to do". Will Olmert know? Has he internalized the two key rules of policy behavior that Sharon learned so well after the debacle of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon: coordinate closely with Washington, and maintain public consensus in support of your policies? Does he have a realistic vision of a viable two-state solution--something Sharon never had? Can he, or anyone else on the political scene, for that matter, replace Sharon's powerful presence with something equally compelling and perhaps less destructive?
Sharon's removal from the scene suggests a second troublesome cluster of immediate crises that Olmert may have to deal with. We saw an inkling of it after Sharon's first, minor stroke, when Palestinian militants in Lebanon with an al-Qaeda link launched katyushas into Kiryat Shmona, Gazan militants aimed their Qassam rockets at Ashkelon and radical settlers set up a dozen new outposts. Now we may see a heavier display of provocations against Israel on the part of all those extremist elements in the region, often egged on by Syria and Iran, that are inclined to interpret Sharon's sudden departure as a sign of Israeli weakness. Inevitably, most of these provocations--Qassams, outposts, suicide bombings and who knows what else--will generate tensions at a time when both Israelis and Palestinians need a little peace and quiet to get their respective houses in order.
Sharon's entire approach to the Palestinian issue evolved significantly during his premiership. But it took two years in office, fighting the intifada, before he discovered, in the words of the popular song he liked to quote, that "things you can see from here you can't see from there". Only then did he begin to come to grips with the limitations of force, the counterproductive nature of the occupation, and the demographic threat, and bought into the public's overwhelming advocacy of the fence and disengagement.
Olmert, seemingly, has a head start because he learned these lessons before Sharon. But any leader who takes over from Sharon has a hard act to follow. Israelis and Palestinians who hope in the coming weeks and months to see some sort of progress, however hesitant and one-sided, should wish him well. The US, EU, Egypt and Jordan should help him--but without interfering in Israel's elections. This is no easy task.- Published 9/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and was a senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Potential for change
by Ghassan Khatib
There is no doubt that the absence of Ariel Sharon from the political scene is a very dramatic development for Israelis, especially the vast majority of the Israeli people who elected Sharon and believed he was on course to fulfill some of their hopes and aspirations. There is also no doubt that this is a tragic moment for his family and those who worked closely with him.
Sharon was in many ways a unique Israeli leader. At a time of serious crisis, he managed to govern Israel with almost no serious political opposition while also almost completely neutralizing international criticism and even influence. Yet, such an unparalleled achievement should not hide the fact that as far as the basic, legitimate Israeli objectives of peace and security are concerned, he achieved little.
In spite of some right wing criticism, he will always be remembered as the champion of the Israeli settlement project in occupied Palestinian territory, Gaza notwithstanding. The withdrawal from Gaza was an achievement from an Israeli perspective because Gaza, which had neither security nor historical significance to Israel, had become only a demographic and security burden with no returns.
As far as Palestinians are concerned, Sharon represented the worst possible in Israeli politics. In addition to the inerasable memory of Sharon's responsibility for massacres at Kibya and Sabra and Shatila, as well as his bloody practices against Gazans in the early stages of the occupation there when he was commanding officer in the area, there is the harsh and brutal treatment meted out to Palestinians during this intifada. On top of all these bitter memories, Palestinians are living the politically negative consequences of Sharon's unilateral strategies, which have been responsible for undermining and politically marginalizing the current Palestinian leadership by refusing its genuine request to resume a political process and negotiations on the basis of the roadmap.
Mahmoud Abbas, a most moderate and reasonable Palestinian leader, who was elected on the basis of replacing violence by peaceful, political negotiations, has been the most prominent victim of Sharon's strategy, a combination of the use of excessive force and unilateralism. Abbas, whose only comparative advantage is his political and negotiations skills and peaceful and moderate reputation, was thus left with no leverage when Sharon, by deciding not to have any political dealings with him, left him out in the political cold.
And, at the same time as Sharon was winning the sympathy of the world by evacuating Gaza, he was busy increasing settlements and building illegal walls, checkpoints and barriers in the West Bank including East Jerusalem--some 95 percent of the total occupied territory.
Through these policies and other brutal measures, Sharon is also responsible for the continuous shift in the internal Palestinian balance of power in favor of the extremists. For one, the peace camp had an impossible task in convincing the Palestinian public of the efficacy of a political approach in which the other side was not willing to engage. Second, by pursuing the use of force as an alternative to political negotiations, Sharon empowered the elements in Palestinian society that also promoted the use of force, as the only viable response to the occupation.
The sudden absence of Sharon from the political scene has come in the midst of other dramatic changes in Israel, including the split in the Likud, the transformation of Labor back into an opposition and early elections. It is possible to hope that with these dramatic changes, the Israeli public might realize that the use of force, together with the failure in recognizing the existence of the other side and thus the necessity of dealing with it, has only deepened hatred and hostility and increased the potential for further violence.
A cursory glance at the history of the last 38 years of occupation should show Israelis that the only period of relative peace and relative security was the period that followed negotiations and agreements. The only way to ensure peace, security and economic prosperity for both sides is when they can recognize and deal with the other as a party that has the same legitimate rights to freedom, independence, peace and security.- Published 9/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Not the end of an era
by Yisrael Harel
Most of the world's press, following the lead of the Israeli media, has declared in the past few days that the almost certain impending departure of Ariel Sharon from the political scene signals the end of an era. With all due respect to the many wise commentators who feel this way, they are mistaken.
While Sharon may have been the most charismatic Israeli leader since David Ben Gurion, the founding father of the state, he himself did not found any sort of strategic approach that could bear his name--not even the unilateralism that he implemented so impressively. Accordingly, his departure from the prime minister's office under sad circumstances does not mean the end of an era. His departure will of course change, by definition, the name of the person who proceeds with the policy of unilaterally establishing facts that Sharon began. Indeed, if that person is Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then we can assert that at the ideological level it is he who holds more of a copyright on the ideas of unilateralism and uprooting settlements than Sharon. He was recruiting adherents to this approach at a time when Sharon still resolutely opposed them.
On the other hand, there certainly is a different political era in Israel. You can almost sense it in the air. Put simply, this new era tells us that there is no chance in the foreseeable future for an agreement with the Palestinians. First, because the Oslo process--in which Israel undertook to allow the entry of some 40,000 armed Palestinians with their political and military leadership and to give the Palestinians an independent state in phases--ended up as a cruel war waged by suicide terrorists. And second, because even Yasser Arafat's successor, Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas), never collected the weaponry of the mob, never ceased the terror even of the organizations linked to Fateh, the movement he heads, and hasn't fulfilled a single promise he made at Sharm al-Sheikh and in hundreds of public pronouncements. Accordingly, more and more Israelis assert, let's take our fate in our hands without the agreement of others and decide unilaterally on the final borders of our country.
This, then, is the national mood of recent years. It was not Sharon who generated the overt and subterranean currents of thought that merged in the conclusion that there is no real option for dealing with the Palestinians save unilateralism. On the contrary, in the last elections, just three years ago, Sharon opposed this view, poured disdain on Labor leader Amram Mitzna who proposed disengaging from just one settlement, Netzarim, and declared that the fate of Netzarim was the fate of Tel Aviv. Only a year and half later, when terrorism persisted and more and more Israelis demanded to isolate themselves from it with walls and fences, did Sharon identify himself with those increasingly surging currents. As an experienced surfer, he pointed the surfboard of his government in the direction of the flow. And ever since he began to surf with the current rather than against it, as he had done for most of his adult life, he has been incorrectly identified as the formulator of the age of seclusion, separation and unilateralism.
The fence, or wall as the world likes to call it, is more a unilateral creation even than disengagement. Sharon, who understood its ramifications for the determination of future borders, resolutely opposed it. Not, of course, for the reasons the Palestinians oppose it. But in this case, too, when he discovered that the fence had a growing legion of supporters drunk with the atmosphere of unilateralism, he homed in on it and deployed his immense political and managerial skills to make it a reality.
This analysis is important, not because of the credit that Sharon may or may not deserve for having or not having created the unilateralist current. It is important, insofar as we are looking at the future rather than the past, because of the concern everyone is expressing lest "the end of the Sharon era" presage the end of the era of disengagement--the end, God forbid, of the uprooting of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. It is this concern, and not consideration for the man's personal welfare, that defines left wing circles in Israel and leftists and centrists in the world. This explains the huge credit and late love bestowed upon Sharon in recent years by those for whom he had been the most hated man in the world, even more than Saddam Hussein.
Sharon, as commentator Dan Margalit correctly notes, was a talented and daring tactician, but not a strategist. Sometimes, Margalit adds, his tactical moves became strategic because of the force and energies he invested in them. That's what happened with the disengagement from Gaza. When Sharon zeroed in on this tactical move, or on the fence--projects that no one but him had the political, personal and managerial strength to execute--that very execution changed the political and ideological way of life in Israel. For all practical purposes the fence defines the future border of Israel, meaning that it leaves the majority of settlements outside the future boundary. And the uprooting of settlements from Gaza is a precedent, according to which Jews can be removed from their homes by force. Thus have the removal of settlements and the construction of the fence evolved from tactical to strategic acts.
Not to worry, though. Whoever permanently replaces Sharon, very likely Ehud Olmert, will more or less--depending on his leadership capability and capacity to win the public's trust--follow the path of the disengagement "mood" that describes the majority in Israel today. The opinion polls indicate that even without Sharon leading Kadima, this unilateralist party will win nearly the same number of mandates. Together with Labor and perhaps the Likud, which with Binyamin Netanyahu at its head is about to become Kadima B, it can continue to carry out the separationist and fence policy, thereby withdrawing Israel nearly to the green line.- Published 9/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yisrael Harel heads the recently established Institute for Zionist Strategy and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He is former head of the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and former editor of its monthly Nekuda.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
At a crossroads
by Hisham Ahmed
The absence of Ariel Sharon from political life puts the Palestinian question at a crossroads.
On the one hand, there is now a real opportunity for potential Israeli leaders to capture the moment, shift gears and enter into a genuine peace process. Palestinian memory is impregnated with Sharon's role as the butcher of Kibya and Sabra and Shatila. When Palestinians think of Sharon they think of settlements; they think of the cantonization of their cities, towns, villages and refugee camps, particularly after the erection of this abhorrent apartheid wall. In other words, Sharon's legacy among Palestinians is a most bitter, painful and bloody one. Without him, potential Israeli leaders have an opportunity to reverse the trend and take on board the lesson that should have been learned from Sharon: brutal confrontation will not create peace, security and stability for Israelis.
On the other hand, there is widespread concern among Palestinians that with this sudden absence of Sharon from political life, newly emerging Israeli leaders will simply rush to compete with each other over who can be tougher with the Palestinians to boost their popularity ahead of the upcoming Israeli elections in March. That is to say, Palestinians are worried that each potential Israeli leader will try to continue the destructive pattern set by Sharon over the years.
Right now, there is a possibility that a peace process might again raise expectations among Palestinians. People are willing to believe that with Sharon goes the root cause of the outbreak of the Aqsa Intifada, i.e., the provocation at the Aqsa Mosque, and the many oppressive Israeli measures that followed. Should new Israeli leaders seek to adhere to the Sharonite formula for gaining popularity, however, the frustration and wave of dashed expectations is likely to presage an even greater intensification of the cycle of violence. Palestinians are highly cognizant of the fact that their lives must not be used as an electoral tool.
The immediate indicator for which direction the new Israeli era is likely to head is the question of the Palestinian Legislative Council elections this month. A hardline policy will prohibit Palestinians from exercising their democratic rights by prohibiting voting and campaigning in Jerusalem. The contrary would be a signal that the new Israeli leadership is following a policy of calm rather than escalation. In addition, the threats that were heard from Sharon and his government to hamper Palestinian elections because of the participation of Hamas must also stop. Palestinians must be allowed to vote freely and for the whole spectrum of choices. Should the Israeli leadership acknowledge this right, it would be a sign that Israel is taking its first steps toward recognizing the rights of the other.
In Israel, the absence of Sharon raises first of all the question of what will happen with his new party, Kadima, a party without institutions that was primarily built around the personality of Sharon. That question in turn leads to the more important issue now facing Israeli society, i.e., whether to continue in the footsteps of a military man who only brought greater insecurity and instability to Israeli society, especially in the last five years, or to engage in a serious bout of soul-searching and reach a consensus to pursue a more tranquil, less occupation-oriented way of political behavior.
The sudden absence of Sharon from political life has put the future of the entire region to the test. It is a test that will be most fully impacted in the months and years to come by the measures and decisions taken now by those who assume power in Israel.- Published 9/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Hisham Ahmed is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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