As Ariel Sharon lies in a medically induced coma after Wednesday’s massive stroke, not only Israel is in a state of flux, so is the international press. As his political career comes to an end, the papers focus on his past conduct; the future of his fledgling political party, Kadima; and prospects for peace in the Middle East.
A Guardian analysis calls the Bulldozer’s commitment to the peace process into question, suggesting he was motivated by self-interest: “Israel’s relationship with Washington required Mr Sharon to pay lip service to the US-led ‘road map’ peace plan and a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, but many Israelis understood that he had little use for either. It was a deception they agreed with. Instead he built substantial support for his new Kadima party on the hope—some call it the illusion—of an imposed solution offering separation from the Palestinians and security without the sacrifices demanded by a negotiated deal, such as the division of Jerusalem.” A news story in the same paper notes that Palestinians are not exactly broken up by Sharon’s health crisis. Says one potential candidate for the Palestinian parliament, “Sharon is the symbol of the worst period of Palestinian history from 1948 until now. … He was the most harsh and cruel Israeli leader. He negotiated with tanks, Apache helicopters and assassinations.” Similarly, with a headline like “God has answered all our prayers to punish a criminal,” you don’t have to guess in which direction the Independent’s piece tilts. The DailyTelegraph’smorediplomatic analysis of the potential post-Sharon void concludes that many Israelis will decide whom to vote for in the March 28 elections based on external factors: “Palestinian militants have declared the end of their ceasefire, Gaza is descending into chaos and Hamas is poised to do well in this month’s Palestinian polls. Not for the first time, the deciding vote in Israeli politics may be cast by the Palestinians.”
An op-ed in Israel’s Ha’aretz predicts that Kadima will do just fine without its founder, because it’s a product of the Zeitgeist: “Kadima is not just Ariel Sharon, but the basis for establishing a moderate coalition. It is the party of national sobriety, which, together with Labor, Meretz, Shinui and the Arab parties, could continue dividing the land between Israelis and Palestinians and establish a border between them. The disengagement from Gaza established the precedent that even in the absence of a diplomatic process, it is still possible to advance toward this goal unilaterally.” However, the paper warns that all could be scotched if Sharon’s old colleague-cum-nemesis butts into the peace process: “[I]t must be hoped that the Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, will remain out of the picture. There is no longer room for a ruling party that is responsive to the interests and dreams of the settlers and leads the country to the brink of destruction solely because of a desire to retain settlements that have no right to exist and whose presence in the heart of Palestinian areas generates friction, hatred and exploitation for generations to come.”
According to a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Sharon’s most likely successor, Ehud Olmert, must fight to win public support. To help voters warm up to him, the op-ed suggests that he pushes the “Sharon legacy”: “Kadima really can nurture its image as the consensus party, the one that blends military resolve with diplomatic flexibility, capitalism with compassion, and Judaism with liberalism.” The United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News thinks Olmert lacks the right stuff: “[W]hile being a wily politician of the old school, he lacks the gravitas of Sharon and it is questionable whether he will be able to command the support Sharon enjoyed.”
A Jordan Times op-ed views the prospects for the peace process as dismal without Sharon’s charisma, nor does it see much of a future for Kadima, “a one man party.” The paper also foresees danger in the scramble to fill Sharon’s shoes: “Labour and the Likud are right back in the game, and Israeli voters are facing a crucial test. Unfortunately, in the short term, it is likely that those vying to replace Sharon will do their best to prove their ‘security’ credentials, and further escalation is all but inevitable.”
An editorial in Lebanon’s Daily Star ignores the axiom “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all,” naming Sharon as one of many leaders with “much blood on their hands” and knocking his “violent” ways. It concludes on an optimistic note, though, declaring that Sharon’s change of heart “was an important sign that even the most violence-addicted warmongers were capable of change.” It also hopes that “others who will lead Israel in the future will complete this journey from extremism to centrism, and finally to realism, legalism and humanism as the necessary factors that Israelis and Palestinians alike must bring to the table.”