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Sharon's legacy

A younger core of political leaders now begins competing for the chance to succeed Ariel Sharon as Israel's prime minister. Mr. Sharon, a hard-liner who underwent a political transformation in office, moved the country toward an accommodation with Palestinians, a path of disengagement from which Israel should not divert.

Felled by a severe stroke Wednesday, Mr. Sharon is, at 77, among the last of a generation of Israeli leaders who helped found the Jewish state, fought its battles against a host of Arab enemies and retired from the military to govern the country. Mr. Sharon personifies the warrior-politician, a controversial figure in war and peace who championed the settlement of Jews in the Palestinian territories to secure Israel's future.

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A decade ago, his opposition to the "land for peace" process denied him the prime minister's job. But the violence of the last Palestinian intifada catapulted him into office in 2001. He offered Israelis what they felt they needed: a pragmatic strongman who would defeat Palestinian militants and their suicide bombers. As the Likud leader, he surprised and then outraged his right-wing flank by deciding to remove Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and a corner of the West Bank. He courageously recognized that Israel needed to disengage from the Palestinians if it was to remain a Jewish state with a secure future.

That decision forced him to leave Likud and start a new political party, Kadima. He took with him some respectable Israeli politicians, including Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem serving as interim prime minister. Their challenge now will be to prepare for the March 28 elections without Mr. Sharon as the party's leader.

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Not since the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has Israel's democracy been in such tumult. Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu is already vying for his old job as prime minister. New Labor leader Amir Peretz will have to convince Israelis that his party can secure the country while encouraging a return to the peace process. That should be the preferred course of action; a majority of Israelis supported Mr. Sharon for that reason.

But the Palestinian political landscape is a minefield. The Islamic militant group Hamas is fielding its first parliamentary candidates in the Palestinians' Jan. 25 election - and they are expected to do well because voters are fed up with their corrupt, lax government. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is dealing with restive young members of his Fatah party and spasms of violence in Gaza.

The outcome of the Palestinian election may well determine whether Israelis choose a successor who builds on Mr. Sharon's steps toward peace or halts the progress made so far. Moving toward a negotiated settlement remains in the best interest of both sides.


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