TOPICS > Politics

Impact of Sharon’s Exit From Israeli Politics

January 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: So what lies ahead for the Middle East without Ariel Sharon as a dominant player? To assess that, we’re joined by Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, and ambassador to Egypt before that– he’s now a professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; Drora Perl, Washington bureau chief of Israeli Defense Forces Radio; and Khalil Jahshan, former president of the National Association of Arab Americans; he now lectures in international affairs at Pepperdine University. Welcome to you all.

Ambassador Kurtzer, if Sharon’s political career is over what does that do to the map of Middle East politics?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, I think it has an impact both within Israel and of course within the region. Within Israel, given that the system was gearing up for elections anyways, this throws some very interesting spanners into the works. I think Kadima, the party that Mr. Sharon created —

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador, I’m sorry to interrupt you, we are having microphone problems so let them fix that and I will go to another guest and come back to you.

What do you think it is going to do regionally, Drora Perl, to the whole relationship there if Ariel Sharon is no longer this dominant figure and is not a player?

DRORA PERL: I believe it will not change a lot. The problems, the processes, the needs are still there. There is going to be what I call a little bit of holding in place time when Israel politics realigns, reassesses and we have to see what happens exactly with Sharon. How does his new party is doing — and what will be the new arrangement within the Israeli body politics?

I do believe that then whichever will be the government, it will be put in place in relatively internal upheaval but it will be very orderly, there will be elections.

And then the peace process, the road map that Israel is committed to, and the — President Bush’s vision, everything is there, we work from there with a new government.

MARGARET WARNER: Khalil Jahshan, your overview of this.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Again, if we look at it from the other side, from the Palestinian side particularly, the relationship, the bilateral relationship between Israel and the Palestinians hasn’t been well before Sharon, during Sharon and most probably will continue after Sharon until there is a decision to engage or re-engage the two parties back into some kind of negotiations.

So the challenge right now for whoever will replace Sharon, should he be replaced, would be how to resume, if you will, bilateral talks in light of the fact that Sharon’s legacy during the last couple of years has been substituting unilateral decisions for bilateral negotiations.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ambassador Kurtzer, I think we are going to be able to hear you now. Sharon has been such a dominant figure that — and he didn’t really anoint a successor. Is there any one you can see there who has the stature and leadership capability to step in to this role? And if not, what are the consequences of that?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, the prime minister had attracted to the Kadima Party, this new centrist party, a good number of quite experienced politicians including the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and even had gained the support of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

MARGARET WARNER: From the Labor Party.

DANIEL KURTZER: From the Labor Party, that’s right, so there is an array of talent in Kadima, people well known to the Israeli public, well known to the international community, who will now vie for leadership within that party.

Assuming the party closes ranks behind Mr. Olmert, he will now have a period of almost three months to define himself, to show the Israeli people that not only is he a man with ideas about peace, but he is also a man who can help secure the country against terrorism and against external threats.

MARGARET WARNER: Is he perceived as a man of ideas about peace in the Palestinian community?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Absolutely not. Although I think the move he has taken with regards to the disengagement –.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m talking about Ehud Olmert as a possible successor.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Well, Olmert is viewed basically as a second fiddle to Sharon. So he is the closest person to him, so the expectation from the Palestinians is one of basically continuing the same line. They do not know Ehud Olmert on foreign policy. The Palestinians know Ehud Olmert mostly as the mayor of Jerusalem so they know him and his positions on municipal affairs, which is not necessarily a positive image because they had a lot of differences internally in terms of discrimination and how East Jerusalem was managed under his mayorship.

MARGARET WARNER: Drora Perl you said earlier you felt it would be a holding pattern and Israel is quite stable. But is there a possible dark scenario here which is if the turmoil in and attacks from Gaza, which we have seen in the last week, or several weeks, continues and you don’t have Sharon in a leadership position, that that could trigger a kind of violent counter response and have certain effects both in the Palestinian and Israeli elections?

DRORA PERL: That dark scenario is possible; it is always possible. And I believe that the system works. The difference would be that people in Israel, mostly in Israel, feel that there is — some people call them the big daddy, some people call — adult supervision, people trusted him to know what to do at any certain point of time, even if he made mistakes, people believe that if not Sharon, the way of Sharon is what has to lead us.

There is one scenario that people draw that maybe the next step we have to remember now is not the election in Israel — it is the election in the Palestinian Authority. And people believe that even in that sense there is some waiting going on. And then we may see a wave of terrorism. And then whoever will lead the big parties, will have to deal with it.

And if Sharon would be there, the population would feel that they are in better hands. But the problem, terrorism is a problem. And whoever will be at the helm will have to deal with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Kurtzer, let me ask you to step outside the Israeli-Palestinian context to the broader region, because you have experience throughout the region. Do you see any of Israel’s regional hostile neighbors, I’m thinking of Syria or Iran, trying to take advantage in any way in this period of uncertainty, and, if so, how?

DANIEL KURTZER: I think we have to be very concerned about the possibility, particularly on the northern front, the Lebanese border where Hezbollah has armed itself to the teeth and is essentially taking orders from Damascus, whether or not the Syrians will use this opportunity to deflect some of the attention away from their own problems, from their possible involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, and how high that goes up in the Syrian system and to use a border skirmish as a means of diverting attention. And I think that is a real possibility.

We have seen the use of the northern border as a tactical weapon in Syria’s arsenal for quite some time and I would not be surprised at all if we see that now.

I would be more skeptical about the possibility of Iran’s launching anything, either physically or allegorically. Frankly, I think the Iranians right now are trying to consolidate their program to try to build a nuclear weapon.

I think they don’t want to draw more attention to themselves at this time. And the remarks of their president over the past few weeks have certainly drawn the kind of attention that would not help them pursue their strategic objectives. But I would be very cautious about the northern border.

MARGARET WARNER: Khalil Jahshan, back to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, you know, when Yasser Arafat died 14 months ago, people actually saw it as an opening for making some progress on disengagement, if not negotiated peace. And I take your point about the fact that Sharon pretty much acted unilaterally.

But compare Sharon’s passing from the scene with Arafat’s in terms of whether it creates new opportunities or, in fact, from Mahmoud Abbas represents a closing of an opportunity.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: It depends where you stand on this issue. If you were a believer in Sharon’s vision, that he indeed was going to — was committed to repeating what he did in Gaza on the West Bank, then —

MARGARET WARNER: That is making some real concessions for settlement.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Concessions — then basically his departure from the scene would deprive you of that option at least temporarily because there has to be an interim period where whoever follows in his footsteps would have to adjust to the new situation. And it could be someone who is not committed.

I mean this situation could create a vacuum where Netanyahu would come back.

MARGARET WARNER: Netanyahu of the Likud Party.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Of the Likud Party. And he is not committed to that. But there are some people who view that Sharon himself both, by the way, on the Palestinian side and some in Israel, few but some in Israel, who are in key positions who have been also critical, key positions in terms of public opinion, saying that Sharon was an impediment in the sense that he has veered away from direct negotiations with the Palestinians. Now is the time to go back and resume that type of negotiations.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Perl, what is your sense of one, whether there are leaders who share Sharon’s vision, if it is what people believed it was, which was to finally fix the boundaries of Israel and make some further concessions on the West Bank, and, if so, do any of them have the clout politically with the Israeli public to do that?

DRORA PERL: Nobody is considered to have the same clout that Sharon has I don’t think in many, many years. He’s bigger than life and has been in the public, was willing, wanting to give him another run for four years. It was very clear.

I believe that what is important is that the public’s belief in what he represented and what he brought. He basically broke the taboo, concessions but unilateralism and that is a point.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly ambassador Kurtzer, your view of that, does this make peace a little farther away?

DANIEL KURTZER: I think it definitely is a setback. The prime minister told me as I departed Israel in September and then repeated it when I saw him just a few weeks ago that there would be moves in the peace process after the next election. And he anticipated remaining prime minister.

It doesn’t mean that his successor would not take those moves. But I agree with Drora that there will be a period of consolidation. The next prime minister is going to have to prove himself as a leader not only in the peace process but also one who can guarantee the security of the state. And that may take some time.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Ambassador Kurtzer, Drora Perl and Khalil Jahshan, thank you all three.