The Mideast, post-Sharon

January 8, 2006

In the short run, the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are going to grow, not abate, in the wake of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke. Both sides now face uncertain elections, and both will have candidates who want to demonstrate their toughness.

But once the elections are over, there could be an entirely different picture of this dispute. That's not to suggest that peace will all of a sudden break out. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. But it does mean that in a little more than a year, the two most militant protagonists, Yasser Arafat and Sharon, will have left the political scene, and their successors won't carry the baggage of the decades-long dispute in the same manner.

Of course, it will matter who wins on each side. Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, is facing a militant challenge from the radical organization Hamas. Many Palestinians are disgusted with the rampant corruption and inefficiencies of the PA. Its inability to bring order to the Gaza Strip since Israel's withdrawal is not a good omen. But Abbas is a man who seems genuinely to believe that violence has been counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. If he can prevail in the parliamentary elections later this month, he will be in a stronger position to negotiate with a new Israeli government after its March 28 elections.

It's also unclear what will happen in the Israeli elections. Sharon's new party, Kadima, which for the moment is headed by interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, seems more in tune with the nation's desire for peace, but with toughness. But the Likud candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, is a more familiar figure, if also more militant. In a period of uncertainty, that might work in his favor.

Timing has always been crucial in the Mideast, and now will be no exception. Even if he prevails in the elections, Abbas must also show he can make progress in the peace process. But it might take many months before the Israelis have settled their political differences and the new prime minister feels secure enough to take chances for peace. Nethanyahu's commitment to West Bank settlements will not make matters any better.

But, as has been the case, the prerequisite for progress will be a cessation of terrorism from the Palestinians. No Israeli government is going to stand by while innocent civilians are blown up by suicide bombers. Abbas must gain control of his own territories.

There is no doubt that Israel will continue to build the security fence in the West Bank. The concept behind it - that the two populations are not ready to live in peace beside each other and must be separated - is something on which there is consensus in Israel.

The question is whether they will live separately in a perpetual state of war, or something more resembling peace.

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