PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- As Ariel Sharon lies ill, many wonder how his successor will handle the Palestinian question.
One of the great ironies of Mr. Sharon's career is that he became identified as the best hope for a solution to the Palestinian conflict. He was demonized by Arabs and he disdained negotiations with the Palestinians. But he also withdrew troops and Jewish settlements unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.
The Bush administration let him guide its policy on the peace process, hoping he would make further withdrawals from the West Bank. Few believe the next Israeli leader will take such a bold risk. Prospects for movement on the Palestinian issue are in a coma.
No one would have predicted that Israelis would turn to Mr. Sharon for a plausible solution to the Palestinian problem. As a military man, he was known for his willingness to tolerate Palestinian civilian casualties during strikes on Palestinian targets. On his watch, Lebanese Christian militias massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Beirut in 1982.
Mr. Sharon was the architect of Israel's plan to populate the West Bank and Gaza with Jewish settlements.
As prime minister, he kept expanding the settlements. His aides suggested that Palestinians could have a mini-state made up of chunks of West Bank land located between settlement blocs; these Palestinian cantons would be linked by tunnels and bridges. This was not a solution that could work.
Mr. Sharon was unwilling to negotiate the boundaries of a state - especially when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was still alive. Instead, he began building a fence that would separate Israel from the West Bank and would incorporate key settlement blocs into Israel proper.
But something seemed to have changed in Mr. Sharon's thinking over the last year. Perhaps he recognized what those in the Israeli center and left had repeatedly warned of: that Palestinian demographics threatened the survival of Israel as a Jewish state.
Unless Israelis gave up the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians would soon compose the majority of the population in Greater Israel. If they were denied political rights, the world would begin comparing Israeli rule of Gaza and the West Bank to South African apartheid.
No doubt the demographic threat motivated Mr. Sharon's dramatic decision to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle the settlements he had championed.
Most Palestinians believe the Gaza pullout was meant to cement Israel's hold on the West Bank. .
But last week - before Mr. Sharon's stroke - the Israeli paper Maariv ran a fascinating piece claiming that Mr. Sharon had intended to make a dramatic move on the West Bank after the March elections. The article said Mr. Sharon intended to pull back from all but 8 percent to 12 percent of the West Bank and evacuate dozens more settlements in return for an agreement with the United States that recognized Israeli sovereignty over the entire Old City of Jerusalem. Such an agreement, Maariv claimed, would also include a U.S. rejection of the "right of return" to Israel by 1948 Palestinian refugees. By negotiating this accord with the Bush administration, not the Palestinians, Israel would effectively turn custodianship of the Palestinians over to the United States.
The Palestinians rejected such an idea. I can't believe the Bush team would have accepted it, either. Nor do we know whether the Maariv article was spin or reflected real plans by Mr. Sharon.
What we know is that none of Mr. Sharon's potential successors is likely to propose any such bold move. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might want to emulate Mr. Sharon but won't have his boss' strong public backing. Nor is it certain how well Mr. Sharon's new centrist party, Kadima, will do in the March elections without him.
Mr. Sharon's boldness might have galvanized the Palestinians into coherence. With him gone, there is no such goad. Nor does the Bush administration have a policy of its own for the post-Sharon era.
It's hard to see who will jump-start the Israel-Palestinian peace process now.
Trudy Rubin in a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.