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Sharon’s legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Questions for Shlomo Ben-Ami

What are the implications of Ariel Sharon’s stroke for the Israeli government?

Benami_israeli_palestinian_9780195181586It is clear that, even if he survives, Sharon is out of the political game. Constitutionally, there is going to be no problem. The transition to a new leader/leadership will be smooth. Israel is a solid democracy.

What does the end of Sharon’s career mean for Israeli politics in the long term?

A change in leadership will inevitably produce temporary confusion and a loss of a sense of security among the Israelis. Sharon was to them an anchor of stability, a father figure who protected them against their enemies in an unmerciful surrounding. But the transition to the new leader, possibly Ehud Olmert, who was groomed by Sharon to be his successor, and whose policies will not be any different from those of Sharon will probably help the Israelis recover their sense of direction. Whether or not the new leader has the caliber required to lead the nation in troubled times can never be known in advance. The transition from mythological leaders to supposedly lesser figures has not always been a bad thing. A case in point was that of the transition in Egypt from Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s charismatic leadership to that of Sadat, whom people ridiculed as Nasser’s lap dog. It soon turned out however that Sadat was the real giant, who changed the entire history of the Middle East. Israel had sooner or later to come to terms with the fact that the generation of the founding fathers (Ben Gurion, Eshkol, Begin) and their sons (Rabin, Sharon) would not be there anymore to lead them. The time has come for a younger generation.

Is Sharon’s new political party in jeopardy?

Kadimah, the party Sharon founded, responds to an authentic need. It therefore will survive the life of its founder.

What impact did Sharon have on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as Prime Minister?

Following the collapse of the peace process in 2001 (one of the chapters of my book), and the Intifada, with its culture of suicide terrorism, and given the chaos that we see in the Palestinian Authority, and now also the chances of a Hamas victory in the elections, the Israelis have lost trust in the Palestinians as partners for a negotiated peace. Only the diminishing fringes of the Israeli left still believe in negotiations. Sharon also understood that, although a more “moderate” leader than Arafat, Abu-Mazen’s positions on the contours of a peace agreement with Israel are no different than Arafat’s. Sharon, therefore, decided to change the equation of the peace process from one of “land for peace” to one of “land for security”. This is how he came to his unilateralist philosophy of disengaging from Palestinian lands without an agreement. And this is exactly what the overwhelming majority of Israelis are comfortable with.

How might new leadership affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

I do not think that the new leader/leaders in Israel will affect in any meaningful way the Palestinian conflict, if only because Sharon’s policies represented a national consensus, that is now embodied in the new leader. After all, Olmert has shown political courage and a sense of leadership when he preceded Sharon in announcing his departure from the right-wing policies he had defended in the past in favor of a centrist cause. He was the first to advocate the policy of unilateral disengagement from the territories.

More importantly, the way Israeli leaders address the Palestinian conflict has always depended on the performance and attitude of the Palestinians themselves. If the chaos in the Palestinian Authority persists with a plethora of terrorist organizations daily challenging the central authority – Gaza is increasingly looking like Baghdad these days – and if Hamas becomes a central political force that would dictate radical policies, then it is entirely inconceivable that Israel’s policy of unilateralism will change to one of bilateral negotiation.

So, what should the new Israeli leadership do to solve the conflict?

Sharon was very careful to develop close working relations with the president of the United States, and he also knew to establish trust with Israel’s neighbor in the south, Egypt and its president Mubarak. Any future Israeli leader willing to move ahead in solving, or reducing the impact of, the Palestinian problem, will have to keep this vital triangle, Israel-USA-Egypt. “Solving the conflict” is not something that Israel’s political system believes in right now. But the best alternative, if I would be asked to recommend a course of action, would be to carry out an additional disengagement, this time in the West Bank, but contrary to the case of Gaza where no Palestinian authority has taken over, Israel should reach an agreement with the members of the Quartet for the establishment of an international mandate, a system of trusteeship, in those territories.

What do you mean by “a system of trusteeship”? Are you calling for an international police force in the West Bank?

I mean that the Quartet should provide an international task force that should include a peacekeeping military force and a civilian element to assist in institution building.

Shlomo Ben-Ami is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Arab-Israeli Tragedy. Ben-Ami is a former Foreign Minister of Israel and has been a key participant in many Arab-Israeli peace conferences, most notably the Camp David Summit in 2000. An Oxford-trained historian, he had a distinguished career at the University of Tel Aviv before he was appointed Israel’s ambassador to Spain in 1987. He later became a member of the Knesset and was Minister of Public Security before becoming Foreign Minister. Currently, Ben-Ami is the Vice President of the Toledo Peace Centre.

Click here to read Dr. Ben-Ami’s Q&A on the Palestinian parliamentary elections.

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