Israel's New Reality

Even if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon survives his stroke, he's unlikely to have the strength -- or perhaps even the mental faculties -- to once again lead Israel. Yossi Verter, a political analyst for Ha'aretz, wrote of the imminent power vaccum: "Nothing is certain anymore. Everything that seemed to be true until yesterday has taken a major hit." Another Ha'aretz analyst called it, succinctly, "the new reality."

For opponents of Sharon this may sound like good news, but hold the mazel tovs for a moment as a quick survey of the landscape reveals a politically -- and morally -- complex tableau.

It's true that under Sharon's leadership construction of the separation wall continues and, as Ghassan Khatib, the minister of planning for the Palestinian Authority, recently wrote:

"Israeli military violence against Palestinians has increased, with frequent Israeli raids in the West Bank and almost nightly shelling of targets in Gaza. Accelerated too is the pace of settlement expansion, while restrictions on the movement of Palestinians have become more stringent."
In other words, when we talk about the passing of Sharon we're not talking about an imminent and fair resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict engineered by a man of peace. What we were seeing, however, was the cold recognition by a fierce fighter and savvy tactician that Israel's best interests would be better served in the long run by tightening its borders and, perhaps, by removing some of the motivation behind citizen support for attacks on Israel and Israelis. And that was new and, to an extent, hopeful.

Make no mistake, Sharon is probably a war criminal and an utterly indefensible figure. This is merely to place Sharon's plans in the context of likely scenarios upon his passing. Tikkun's Rabbi Michael Lerner writes: "Ariel Sharon has done what no one on the left was able to do: split the right, marginalize the extremists who believe that holding on to the biblical vision of the land of Israel is a divine mandate, and acknowledge that a smaller Israel with defensible borders is preferable to a large Israel that requires domination of 3 million Palestinians."

He was able to do this precisely because he was known as a brutal leader willing to do nearly anything to ensure the safety of his people. When he began to dismantle some settlements (of which he was the architect and godfather), he faced heated opposition within his party. Sharon then abandoned the right-wing Likud party that he'd founded and launched the more-centrist Kadima (forward) party.

There are, of course, those who reject this whole line of reasoning as so much nonsense, the equivalent of yet another "turning point" in Iraq.

"[Sharon's departure] will mean very little," comments Ali Abunimah, founder of the website Electronic Intifada.
Sharon's departure changes none of the basic facts about the conflict, any more than Arafat's death did. Sharon had managed to convince a lot of people that the Gaza "disengagement" was the beginnning of something different. But you can only believe that if you ignore the fact that under Sharon, Israel has continued to accelerate the colonization of the West Bank. I have no doubt that Sharon's successor will continue that policy. In the absence of massive international pressure to force Israel to relinquish the occupied territories, there will be no Palestinian state and no peace. The cliche coverage will tell us that this is a "blow for peace," "turmoil" in Israel, a "setback" for diplomacy and other such nonsense.
Because Kadima is such a new party, and obviously lacking a procedure for choosing Sharon's successor, and because its strength lay in Sharon's reputation, in any case, there are doubts about whether Kadima can now pick up enough seats in the upcoming elections to have much of an impact. Until Sharon's ill health, Kadima was expected to win a plurality and to make cause with the Labor Party, led by the dovish Amir Peretz.

Violence in Israel/Palestine tends to favor the right side of the spectrum -- in the politics of both countries' people. As elections approach either side of the nonborder, the tactic for Sharon as much as Hamas has always been to ratchet up the violence, a sort of revving of the engines at the starting line. While violence has been worse in the past, it may well be enough to push the Israeli electorate rightward, giving ultrahawk Netanyahu a big boost.

Then again, internal Israeli politics could just as easily favor Amir Peretz's social change rhetoric or Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister and likely Sharon replacement, as the face of Kadima. The sudden loss of a popular leader has a tendency to throw all predictions out the window. It's the "new reality," and what it'll look like is anybody's best guess.

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