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Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 14:34 GMT
Mid-East peace realities after Sharon
By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs editor

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon has been a key player in the Mid-East peace process

With the departure of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the political scene, some things are suddenly becoming a great deal clearer between Israel and the Palestinians.

And it isn't necessarily very comforting to our old habits of thought.

Ever since the BBC first broke the news in the early 1990s that peace talks were going on in Oslo between the two sides, Western opinion has allowed itself to be optimistic about what was dubbed the 'peace process'.

The aim of it, we believed, was to allow the two separate nations, Israel and Palestine, to live side by side on reasonably acceptable terms. To the West, the 'process' seemed to be the basic reality in Middle Eastern politics.

Anything else that happened - violence, murder, bombing - was an aberration, a rock in the road.

But it wasn't like that at all. In fact the Oslo 'peace process' showed the Palestinians they would never achieve anything except their least important demands - and they would have to work really hard even to get those.

Tough line

Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, former US President Bill Clinton and one-time Israeli Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Mr Sharon all understood this in their different ways.

So did Palestinian militant group Hamas. So did former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Not so Europe and the United States. They never quite twigged that the 'peace process', a phrase which journalists and politicians still love to use, never meant what they hoped and thought it meant.

This particular peace strategy ceased to exist on the day in 2000 when Mr Sharon ventured onto the precincts of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (known to Jews as the Temple Mount) and sparked off a new intifada. The violence led to the defeat of Ehud Barak's government a few months later.

As prime minister, Mr Sharon then proceeded to defeat the intifada. Mercifully, there has been a significant reduction in the number of suicide bombings recently. This represents a major victory for Israel's tough line. This tough line wasn't going to change.

Mr Sharon was not on the verge of establishing a lasting peace between equals when illness struck him down.

He certainly had a change of mind about the correct way forward, and seems to have been persuaded by his son Omri and others that it was essential to get rid of the settlements in Gaza, where two soldiers were needed to guard each settler.

But he would not have gone much further. We shouldn't assume that dismantling the Gaza settlements was in any way easy. If you want to see the depth of the hatred he aroused for doing it, look at the readers' comments on the website of any Israeli newspaper at the moment.

While the vast majority of responses are thoughtful and often supportive of Mr Sharon, there are some which are astonishingly violent. Extreme right-wingers believe Mr Sharon was struck down by the same sort of curse which they think resulted in the murder of Mr Rabin in 1995, and they are exulting in it.

But we shouldn't assume either that 'peace' was just around the corner. Mr Sharon, if he had lasted the course, might well have used his immense political strength to dismantle other settlements which were hard for Israel to defend, but that would have been all.

Election speculation

As for returning most of the West Bank, or giving the Palestinians territory to compensate them for the big settlement blocs: forget it.

Israeli public opinion wouldn't have allowed Mr Sharon to do it, even if he had wanted to. And he would never have allowed the Arab quarters of Jerusalem to be part of a Palestinian state.

In other words, the fundamental Palestinian requirements would have been as far from achievement as ever. Now that Mr Sharon has effectively gone, these things are easier to understand.

And on both sides it looks as though leaders who will accept the new reality may emerge. Ehud Olmert, Mr Sharon's deputy as head of the Kadima Party which Mr Sharon founded, will lead the party into the election in March.

But most Israeli commentators assume that Mr Sharon's old party, Likud, headed by his right-wing rival Mr Netanyahu, will come out top in the election. Mr Netanyahu represents everything Mr Sharon used to stand for, until the change of mind which led to the withdrawal from Gaza.

On the Palestinian side, assuming that an election goes ahead later this month, Hamas seems likely to give a real drubbing to the ruling Fatah party, headed by Mr Abbas - if, that is, the election is a fair one.

In the past it was never entirely clear whether Hamas really wanted to form a government. Now its leader, Mahmoud Zahar, says it does.

"We are running for the Legislative Council to put an end to the vestiges of Oslo," he said at the weekend.

So by the spring an Israeli government led by Mr Netanyahu will probably face a Palestinian administration in which Hamas will be the strongest element.

After that, there will be no excuse for any politician or any commentator to use the phrase 'peace process' any more.

The Americans will be as strongly as ever on Israel's side, but demographics will be on the side of the Palestinians. And no one can be sure what the outcome will be this time.


Do you agree with John Simpson's views? What impact will the removal of Sharon from politics have on the Middle East? Is it possible for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process to develop?




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