Ariel Sharon & Peace in the Middle East

Yassir Arafat and Ariel Sharon differed on so many subjects and so many levels yet will be linked together by history. Both are of the same generation, saw the same events, fought the same wars. Both, it seems, are/were to be the last of their generation and to have their greatest impact at their exits from the international stage, if in differing ways.

The news came out yesterday that Prime Minister Sharon had suffered a severe stroke and would be undergoing surgery to stop bleeding in his brain. The surgery is complete and the Prime Minister remains "under heavy anaesthesia and ventilation" while his deputy, Ehud Olmert, assumes to duties of Prime Minister until Mr. Sharon recovers or the elections already scheduled for 28 March are held. (Constitutionally, the Deputy PM is able to act as Prime Minister for only 100 days. The elections that had already been scheduled precede that cut off.)

This personal tragedy for Sharon's family (already visited often by tragedy)is not the end of the story.

First, Ariel Sharon has always been a polarizing figure. For a long time he supported the establishment of settlements and his dealings in Lebanon angered many...

Ariel Sharon was, however, the best chance for peace in the Middle East. It wouldn't be a totally just peace, but that was never going to happen anyway. The conflict, drawn out and deeply felt by both sides, has become intractable. Ariel Sharon was the only leader in Israel with the force of personality to remove settlements and give up land.

Sharon's disappearance from the political landscape (even if he does survive, he's not expected to remain in politics) will be enormously damaging to the new Centrist party Sharon had just formed. In November, the PM left his own Likud party, a party he had been part of for decades, to form Kadima. Polling showed Sharon retaining the Prime Minister position and Kadima leading other prospective parties for the March elections.

As a new party and a party so strongly identified with Sharon, Kadima's fortunes seem to have taken a disastrous turn. Major Israeli newspapers have observed that Mr. Olmert, Sharon's Deputy, does not have the same charisma or connection with the people of Israel to push through unpopular measures, such as the removal of settlements and concessions in the West Bank, that Mr. Sharon was expected pursue.

Sharon realized that Israel was at a crossroads. He addressed the question, 'how does one maintain a nation that is both a Jewish Homeland and a modern democracy with millions of Palestinians living within its borders?' by realizing that some land must be provided for an independent Palestine. This, concurrent with the understanding of a new reconciliatory Palestinian Authority that Israel has a right to exist in safety, allowed for the best hope of a lasting peace. None of these policies are particularly popular, especially among the Likud party. Seeing the need for new and bold action, Sharon struck out on his own, forming Kadima. His unfortunate and tragic exit from politics leaves this legacy, an old warrior with a changed heart working for peace, in question.

Ghazi al-Saadi, a Palestinian commentator has said, "A live Sharon is better for the Palestinians now, despite all the crimes he has committed against us," acknowledging Sharon as "the first Israeli leader who stopped claiming Israel had a right to all of the Palestinians' land." Members of the Palestinian Parliament forecast a more hardline approach from Israel in the wake of Sharon's departure from politics.

In the end, Yassir Arafat's death showed glimmers of a future where the two sides, Israeli and Palestinian, could truely negotiate. I fear that Ariel Sharon's tragic departue from politics will signal the closing of a door that was scarcely open to begin with.

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