The human impulse is to hope that he survives and has years of restful peace remaining. Whether that happens or not, however, the serious stroke suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is likely to be a setback to hopes for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. And for a time, at least, it will throw Israeli politics into something of a turmoil.
Sharon was the spearhead of an interesting move. With much of the Likud Party he had headed opposed to his policy of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, he had formed a nominally centrist party, Kadima, to contest elections scheduled for March. While it had attracted former Prime Minister (and former Laborite) Shimon Peres, however, the party was to a great extent a personal vehicle.
Sharon on Saturday was clinging to life in an induced coma designed to prevent further brain damage from a massive stroke and marathon surgery to stop bleeding in his brain.
Assuming he is unable to return to active political life soon, vice premier and now-acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems a likely successor. But in the words of Shmuel Rosner, U.S. correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Olmert “was always the adjutant,” smart but not popular, “not a military hero nor a great orator.” Whether he will be able to unite a party that is still in the process of being formed is an open question.
Although the withdrawal last year from Gaza seems to have been generally popular among Israelis (beyond a small but quite intense opposition), it is associated closely with Sharon personally. As a former military officer and renowned hard-liner, he was able to argue that withdrawal and further concessions to Palestinians were in Israel’s security interests.
Will the same policies from other lips sound like appeasement to many Israelis? That could redound to the benefit of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud’s candidate since Sharon left the right-wing party to form the more-centrist Kadima party.
As always, the interest of the United States is to be watchful and patient, resisting the urge to try to manipulate the outcome. Peace between Israel and Palestine will come when both sides decide it is better than continued conflict, not because the United States or other outside parties applies pressure.