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Ariel Sharon and The Tale of Two Elections

The health of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has dominated the atmosphere throughout the Middle East. While events surely did not stop, there seemed to be reduced activity in some quarters and unexpected respectful (and often praiseful) words from others, as the man who unilaterally handed over Gaza to the Palestinians was raced from examination to examination, and surgery to surgery. His condition is seen as improving, however, as Sharon has begun breathing on his own and had moved his right hand and his right leg to pain stimulus.

In Sharon’s absence, if not his shadow, Ehud Olmert has assumed the helm \ of both a nation in increasing conflict and a political party in its infancy. Olmert actually has an unfortunate benefit in the short term resultant from the emotional state of Israelis during the crisis surrounding Prime Minister Sharon’s sudden failing health. While he does benefit from a somewhat forgiving public for the time being, in the coming eleven weeks before the ‘snap’ Israeli election, he will have to face defining the Kadima Party founded by the ailing Sharon, and articulating its positions without the direct aid of its founder. He must also convince them that he will carry on and continue the path that Sharon has set forth.

The conflict surrounding Israel is ever increasing, despite Sharon’s efforts to achieve peace through actions like the unilateral handover of Gaza to the Palestinians. A similar but more limited move with the West Bank was not out of the question. Insofar as external influences are concerned, the rising violence is almost certainly because of Sharon’s efforts. Neither Iran nor Syria see benefit from a resolution to or an abatement of the Palestinian Crisis. Both the Iranian mullahcracy and the Assad regime seem intent on fighting and destroying Israel, right down to the last Palestinian (and Lebanese Hizbollah loyalist).

Add to that mix al-Qaeda. As was noted here that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq had laid claim to the late-December missile attacks on Israeli towns from across the Lebanese border, it is now reported that the order to attack Israel came directly from Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi said in a tape:

“The rocket firing at the ancestors of monkeys and pigs from the south of Lebanon was only the start of a blessed in-depth strike against the Zionist enemy… All that was on the instructions of the shaikh of the mujahidin, Osama bin laden, may God preserve him.”

While it remains unclear as to what degree al-Qaeda is prepared to continue this strategy, this does not bode well for the future level of violence in and around Israel in the coming months and, perhaps, longer.

The Palestinian elections coming later in January and the campaign leading up to them have proven bitterly divisive, at least among the leadership of the key factions vying for power. This is especially in Gaza with its current state of lawlessness. In the West Bank, Israel is allowing Palestinian campaigning in East Jerusalem, starting on Monday, but only for registered candidates. Israel is using a registration procedure to prevent any Hamas candidates from participating. There are those who suggest that Israel should step aside and allow the voting and campaigning, come what may (a Hamas leadership), thinking that the Palestinians will have to live eith the consequences of their choices on election day. One defense to that argument is that the Israeli government (and its citizens) would also have to live with the choice of leadership and the realities of the violent conflict a Hamas government would create. A Hamas leadership is not acceptable for them, as Hamas still defines victory as one Palestinian state, from the River to the Sea, and the destruction of Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas said publicly on Palestinian Television that he has received assurances from the US that East Jerusalem Palestinians will be able to vote in the January 25 elections. He said that he had received such assurances from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush. What the AP article referenced fails to note is that State Department spokesman Sean McCormack denied any such assurances were given.

Two things about this are interesting. First, it is not the United States’ place to give such assurances for a region in which they have no presence, if such assurances were given. This is an Israeli-Palestinian issue where the United States may play a role, but certainly has no authority to dictate the decisions of Israel. It is possible that such a message was cautiously relayed under the context of “…look, we’re working on it”. But to outright guarantee seems not only unlikely, but rather arrogant if true. Second, it appears that Abbas is selling this to either the Palestinian public or, more likely, to the Israeli interim leadership. Regardless of the degree to which any assurances were or were not given to Abbas, it seems to be a political end around play while the Israelis are preoccupied.

What likely transpired was that the Palestinians were given encouraging words on the coming elections and East Jerusalem to some extent, but in confidence. Abbas broke that confidence and publicly overstated any assurances in an effort to one-up Olmert and force his hand in East Jerusalem.

It appears clear that the Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem are actually quite apathetic to the whole political process in the Palestinian Territories. No different than in many democratic election settings, voters tend to believe that the politicians running are not the best their people has to offer and are seeking levers of power rather than the task at hand in service to the public.

The Palestinians enter into elections with weak leadership that is sought to be replaced with weaker, as seen through the eyes of Jerusalem’s Palestinian voters. This certainly is not a sentiment limited to the edges of East Jerusalem. Israel, on the other hand, goes into the elections having lost one of the strongest leaders in its brief modern history and unsure about the prospects and strength of the man and the government that would replace him.

To what degree Israel’s outside foes will seek to leverage this remains to be seen, but should begin to take visible form in the coming weeks.

Feedback

I think what Sharon's incapacitation has shown is the weakness of any strategy based upon supporting individuals rather than policies. Even though Sharon broke with the administration's "Road Map to Peace" plan, he became one of the two pillars of U.S. policy with regard to Israel/Palestine. The other pillar was Abbas, and he and his coterie are sinking politically as well, as Hamas rises. Having invested so much dimplomatic capital in these two individuals, the administration is now without a coherent policy on this. I dealt with this issue in more depth at this post.

As for Kadima and Israel's election, I think that Kadima has two problems. One is the view that it was a one-man show, made clear from the oft-repeated observation that Sharon's vast security experience gave him a unique ability to make concessions while fighting terrorism. Olmert may grow in office, but despite being a former mayor of Jerusalem his personal status in Israel has not been high. He was ranked 33rd on the Likud's election list before he jumped ship to Kadima.

Kadima's second problem is that, to the extent to which it is based on a policy and not an individual, it is still a single-issue party. It has Sharon's policy of unilateral disengagement combined with aggressive retaliation, and nothing else. Its leading lights are all over the political spectrum on economic and social issues. Even if the unilaterial disengagement policy were working out well, which it is not, this would keep it from having much of a long-term future. Also, Kadima's other elder statesman, Shimon Peres, is 82. He acts like he can stay in politics forever, but as Arik should remind us, no one can.