Does peace now have a chance?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor The news from Israel could hardly be much worse. The political career of Ariel Sharon is surely over. Hope of a major political realignment in Israel has been crushed, as it was based entirely on him.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

The news from Israel could hardly be much worse. The political career of Ariel Sharon is surely over. Hope of a major political realignment in Israel has been crushed, as it was based entirely on him. And at a stroke, as it were, the prospect of a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians has been shattered.

In looking forward to the new year, I struck an optimistic note about the Middle East in particular in an article in the EDP last week. Mr Sharon's break with Likud, coming on top of the pull-out from Gaza, had made everything possible, it seemed. The same applies without him - but in a negative sense.

We are back, I fear, with WB Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . . the best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity . . . and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" (The Second Coming).

Mr Sharon is/was a warrior-politician. He believed in not only talking tough but also acting the same way; in carrying a big stick and using it to scatter and dominate Israel's enemies. For many, he was a pariah after the 1982 massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon when, as Israel's defence minister, he seemed - at the very least - to be turning the other way as his country's Christian Phalangist allies did their worst.

He became the embodiment of the 'Don't give an inch' attitude of the ultra-nationalists in Israel. Indeed, it was much worse than that. It was 'Don't give an inch, and take several miles' as Israeli settlements in captured Palestinian territory were rapidly multiplied and enlarged. As housing minister in the early 1990s, he had much to answer for.

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He was also accused of triggering the (second) Palestinian intifada or uprising by a visit he made to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000. His appointment as his country's prime minister the following year therefore initially appeared to offer no hope at all of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The US-led Road Map for a two-state settlement was published in 2003. But George W Bush's interest in it seemed to come and go, and Mr Sharon often appeared to be paying only lip service to it (while actually moving in a quite different direction). But the landscape became much more promising in November 2004 when Palestine was relieved of the deeply corrupt and obstructive presence of Yasser Arafat.

His death, and his succession by Mahmoud Abbas, encouraged Mr Sharon to carry out the radical step of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. And the anger that move caused inside Likud persuaded Mr Sharon to break away from his old hardline colleagues, form a new party - called Kadima (Forward) - and seek re-election under his new colours.

Though Mr Sharon was already unwell, the strategy seemed to be well on course until Wednesday. Now, however, there is a clear danger that everything will fall apart, that ultras will advance in both Israel and Palestine and that the two parts of the necessary solution will again become locked into conflict.

For a start, Kadima is nothing without Mr Sharon. It is now likely to perform poorly in the general election of March 28 - with many of the people who would have voted for it under Mr Sharon's leadership choosing to stick with Likud. And Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu will now be the favourite to become prime minister after the election. The position of leading hardliner passed to him from Mr Sharon long ago, and for some considerable time he has been Mr Sharon's main opponent and rival.

We should not expect him, either in the election campaign or for a long time afterwards, to give any encouragement to the idea of also withdrawing from the West Bank. At best, the peace process would go into the deep freeze.

Calculation that Mr Netanyahu will take over is likely to have a big impact, moreover, on the election to the Palestinian legislature that is scheduled for January 25. It is good news for the extremists of Hamas, who were already set to do well in the poll. Surveys had suggested that this organisation, which refuses to accept Israel's right to exist, would win 30-40pc of the votes and that Mr Abbas's Fatah movement was haemorrhaging support. That trend may now be exacerbated. And that would further help Mr Netanyahu in the Israeli election.

One nightmare scenario is that by the end of March Mr Netanyahu will be running his country, and that he will be facing a greatly weakened Mr Abbas and a much emboldened Hamas. That might suit him but it would be grim for everyone who does believe in the Road Map.

It is certainly not only in Israel and Palestine that Mr Sharon's stroke and political demise could have devastating consequences. The conflict in the Middle East has long been the source of much of the world's troubles, and the main generator of 'Islamic'extremism. Another upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would inspire further atrocities by fanatics in Iraq. It could push Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadine-jad into new depths of irrationality. It could even be used as justification for more terrorist attacks in London.

Until only a year ago or thereabouts, Mr Sharon caused much of the world to wonder how a Middle East peace could ever be achieved with him. Now we must question how it can be done without him. Wednesday may come to be seen as a historically awful day.