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Sharon's illness adds to disarray

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- The sudden political disappearance of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, struggling for life after a major stroke, has thrown the future of any peace process with the Palestinians into question.

But the Palestinian Authority is in such disarray that it might be incapable of negotiating on terms an Israeli leader could accept.

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There is spreading chaos, a sense of deterioration and growing concern among both Palestinians and Israelis that the Palestinian Authority, which is nearly bankrupt and facing a huge budget deficit, might look like a failed state even before it becomes one.

Life for ordinary Palestinians is becoming harder, with less security and optimism than a year ago. The Israelis pulled out of Gaza - a thrilling moment for many Palestinians - but the territory has become practically lawless, not a model for a future state, and Palestinian voters seem set to punish their rulers, the divided Fatah movement.

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Palestinians are campaigning for legislative elections on Jan. 25 that are expected to bring the radical Islamic group Hamas, dedicated to a continuing armed struggle against Israeli occupation, into a significant share of power in the authority.

"All the chaos is coming from inside the Palestinian Authority and Fatah," said Khaled Duzdar, a Palestinian analyst at the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. "Fatah almost seems to be working on behalf of Hamas. This is the lowest the Palestinian Authority has reached."

The splitting of the main Palestinian faction Fatah and the participation of Hamas and its militants in the authority are serious questions that any new Israeli leader will have to confront right away.

By itself, the victory of Hamas or its achievement of a blocking minority within the authority could be enough to put an end to the long-moribund "road map," the peace plan drafted and endorsed by the United States, as well as the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Hamas is committed to keeping its armed wing and its weapons, and says it is running in this campaign "to protect the resistance." One of the road map's first requirements is that the authority disarm all militants, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is affiliated with Fatah.

The Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, has promised Israel and Washington to disarm the militants after the elections, but no American or Israeli policymaker or intelligence analyst interviewed over the past two months said they believe he will be able to do so, and most think he is unlikely even to try.

So, outside of considerations of Israeli leadership, progress toward peace seems unlikely.

"We have an ailing prime minister, and the Palestinians have an ailing authority, and both are on life support," said a senior Israeli intelligence officer, who could not be identified because of the nature of his work.

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Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, the departing director of Israeli military intelligence, was blunt: "We are facing a real revolution in the Palestinian Authority."


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