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After Sharon, Israel must push for peace
China Daily  Updated: 2006-01-09 05:45

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's era is believed to have come to an end, though his doctor has said he stands a good chance of surviving.

The world has been watching the unfolding drama intensely.

A man rarely free of controversy, Sharon is a heavy hitter to both supporters and critics. His sudden exit from the stage is leaving behind a vista of uncertainty in his country, Palestine and the Middle East as a whole.

Over five decades, Sharon has etched a controversially indelible mark on Israel's military and political landscape. He is the figure who reshaped Israeli politics and diplomacy in the post-Oslo period.

The most unlikely of peacemakers, he traded in his image of hawk to one of moderate.

His power and lack of subtlety won him the epithet "the Bulldozer." He adopted uncompromising tactics as a commander in all the wars he fought on Israel's behalf, going back to the 1948 War of Independence.

In the last two years he became the man of the centre. Sharon shed his reputation as the bruising and reckless builder of settlements.

He broke away last November from Likud, the right-wing party he helped found three decades ago.

His new Kadima party embodies a national consensus that Israel would have to reduce its occupation of Palestinian lands in return for a final, secure border.

It should not necessarily mean Sharon's political journey is a linear progression from hawk to dove.

He was neither loved nor hailed as a harbinger of peace as his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin had been a decade earlier.

His definition of what would constitute victory is unclear. The building of Israel's controversial security barriers seemed to point in one direction; his decision to withdraw entirely from the Gaza Strip another. For him, extra security measures were indispensable accompaniments to peace negotiations.

His vision of a final settlement with Palestinians was an imposed one. His decision to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip in August was unilateral.

This riposte left a big question mark over his basic conviction that Jews and Arabs can live together.

Controversial though he certainly is, Sharon played no small role.

His unexpected retreat from the political stage will mean a lot for his country and the rest of the Middle East.

It makes the upcoming elections in Palestine and Israel unpredictable.

On January 25, Palestinians will go to the polls to elect 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Council members will choose a cabinet to serve with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Before his collapse, Sharon's charisma made his Kadima Party a favourite to win a general election scheduled for March 28.

The hope becomes dimmer with Sharon living on life support. Being a one-man show, he has no obvious successor. Without him, the future of Kadima is thrown into serious doubt.

Three choices are awaiting the Israelis for the election in March.

Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party represents the rightist way: Israel should concede land only as part of a concrete peace deal with Palestinians.

The Labour Party, with its new leader Amir Paretz, goes the Labour way: negotiating with the Palestinians.

The Kadima Party is the third way: For the past year Sharon pushed forward a vision for separation. His idea to keep Israel a Jewish state was to detach it physically, wherever possible, from the Palestinians.

A change of leadership in Israel is imminent. It will cast into uncertainty Israel's policy towards the Palestinians.

Whoever ultimately fills the huge chair Sharon leaves empty should not veer from the path of peace mapped out by his predecessors.

(China Daily 01/09/2006 page4)

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