Politics & Policy

Sharon and The Future

What to look for.

All eyes now turn to Israel and the future of the Middle East peace process as 77-year-old Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who suffered a massive stroke Wednesday night, fights for his life in a Jerusalem hospital.

The Psalmist tells us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem: may those who love you be secure.” (Psalm 122:6) The Apostle Paul urged followers of Jesus Christ to pray “for kings and all those in authority” because “this is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (II Timothy 2:1-4).

Let us pray, therefore, for the Israeli leader, for his family, his senior advisers, and for Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, who is now serving as acting Prime Minister while this difficult moment unfolds. Let us also pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the safety and protection of the Israeli people, who now face one of the most severe leadership crises in their modern history, even as terrorists smuggle arms into the West Bank and Gaza and Iran threatens to wipe Israel “off the map.”

Prayer was the First Family’s first response. “Laura and I share the concerns of the Israeli people about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s health, and we are praying for his recovery,” said President Bush in a statement released by the White House. “Prime Minister Sharon is a man of courage and peace. On behalf of all Americans, we send our best wishes and hopes to the Prime Minister and his family.”

Sharon’s sudden departure from the international diplomatic stage and the Israeli political scene has–literally overnight–created an enormous vacuum that will radically reshape events in the region and the course of the upcoming Israeli elections, scheduled for March 28. For even if Sharon recovers–and we all hope he does–he will not be returning to his current post. So what will a post-Sharon era look like?

Here’s what to watch for:

‐Whither Kadima? Ariel Sharon recently bolted Likud and formed a new political party to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians and to try to bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end once and for all. But the fate of Kadima (Hebrew for “Forward”) now hangs in the balance. Big question: Can a party built almost entirely on the foundation of one man’s popularity move forward without that man at the helm? Kadima members will have to decide quickly whether to choose a new leader or to fold the party altogether and try to go back to their previous political homes. At this point, the former is more likely than the latter. Kadima’s simplest choice as new leader would be Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, now running the country during Sharon’s incapacitation. But Olmert has never been that popular with the broad sweep of Israeli voters. Will they see him in a different light now? Can he effectively claim to be the heir to Sharon’s policies? If not, who can?

‐Hamas rising? Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once famously remarked, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Sadly, this dictum may prove to be true again when Palestinians hold parliamentary elections on January 25th. Never before has the Israeli public been more prepared to make sweeping territorial concessions. Yet the Palestinian public is suddenly making a sharp turn toward radical Islam and more terror.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party support a two-state solution with Israel. But their popularity is plunging, while Hamas (an acronym for the “Islamic Resistance Movement”) is rapidly gaining ground in recent polls. Gaza is already poised to become the “Hamastan” I warned about in recent articles. But the militant group–which calls for the destruction of Israel and has strong ties to Iranian and Saudi extremists–is also seeing its popularity soar in the West Bank. In December, Hamas scored a stunning 68 percent of the vote in municipal elections in Nablus, while Fatah received only 16 percent. In Jenin, Hamas and Fatah were in a statistical dead heat, 43-42 percent. In Ramallah–the epicenter of West Bank politics–Hamas scored a surprisingly strong 31 percent, though Fatah still held control with 34 percent.

Abbas is under growing pressure to postpone the elections, especially in the light of growing violence and lawlessness, particularly in Gaza. But President Bush is urging him to stay the course. If elections do occur, and Hamas scores big, watch for: A) the peace process to grind to a halt; B) a new wave of Palestinian violence against Israel to be unleashed; and C) international aid to the Palestinians to dry up (the European Union, which gave the Palestinians some $340 million in 2005, has threatened to freeze all aid if Hamas wins control of the Palestinian Authority).

‐ Will Iran go nuclear? Iran seems to be going out of its way to make itself a major issue in Israeli politics. The mullahs are feverishly pursuing nuclear weaponry and the long-range missiles to deliver them. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map, and has denied the Holocaust happened, while apparently preparing for a new one. Israelis trusted ex-general Sharon to do whatever was necessary to protect them from Tehran. To whom will they look now?

‐ Is Bibi back? The political fortunes of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu have just changed dramatically. All but written off by many political observers in Israel who thought he would be trounced in a three-way battle with Sharon, the former Prime Minister could be Israel’s next Prime Minister. He won the recent Likud primaries decisively. He has taken a tough position on Iran. And he has a track-record of controlling Palestinian terrorism while also negotiating peace deals (he gave Hebron to Yasser Arafat, though the Israeli Left never gave him much credit and the Right was furious). But Netanyahu’s success is by no means certain. His party is badly divided. The Israeli press hates him. And he would need to find a way to win over centrists while not causing the Right to abandon him. It won’t be easy. But suddenly, it’s possible.

Joel C. Rosenberg is the New York Times best-selling author of The Last Jihad, The Last Days and The Ezekiel Option, with more than one million copies in print. He worked for Benjamin Netanyahu in 2000.

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