Absent Sharon, the US should keep the peace process moving

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The year was 1982. Israel had invaded Lebanon. Israeli troops, conducting military operations directed by then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, had laid siege to Beirut. As President Reagan watched the offensive live on TV, Israeli artillery shells and air-strikes pounded the Lebanese capital. An American cease-fire negotiator on-scene reported to the White House: "The city is being destroyed."

Reagan phoned Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin demanding that he stop the bombardment at once. A follow-up cable said the "incomprehensible and unacceptable" Israeli provocation threatened the "entire future" of US-Israeli relations. Secretary of State George Shultz, closeted with the president when he made the phone call, returned to the State Department to tell his aides he had never seen the American president so enraged. The bombardment orchestrated by Mr. Sharon was stopped, but Sharon's actions, compounded by his later complicity in the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, branded him in US eyes as a brutal foe of the Palestinians.

Fast forward to 2006. Now Sharon, prime minister of Israel, stricken by severe medical problems, is lauded by the US as a statesman and peacemaker, and mourned by nations around the world because his probable departure from the political scene casts the peace process between Israel and Palestinians into limbo.

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It has been a remarkable transition for Sharon over the years, from a hard-liner of the right wing to a politician of the political center who could perhaps gain the confidence of most Israelis to negotiate peace between Jews and Arabs. It brings to mind the achievements of other hard-liners in recent history who also had the credibility to lead their conservative electorates to startling change. Probably only Richard Nixon could have sold American conservatives on his opening to Communist China. Probably only F.W. de Klerk, a white Afrikaner nationalist who became prime minister, could have carried white South Africans with him as he freed African nationalist Nelson Mandela from jail and led South Africa out of the darkness of apartheid.

If Sharon is indeed unable to return to a leadership role in Israel, there is not a politician who springs instantly to mind capable of implementing his vision for peace with the Palestinians.

Acting prime minister Ehud Olmert is a longtime politician; a Sharon protégé, in sync with Sharon's thinking; and he recently split from the Likud party with Sharon to form the new Kadima party. He has none of Sharon's charisma. However, just as a one-time haberdasher named Harry Truman emerged from obscurity to become an admired and fearless American president, we must not discount that Olmert might surprise us.

Benjamin Netanyahu has charisma and boundless ambition. He is well known to Americans from his tenure as Israeli ambassador to the US. But he has split from Sharon, criticized such Sharon initiatives as the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza, and moved to a right-wing stance in Israeli politics far beyond Sharon's that would seem to make difficult his ability to carry the political center.

Shimon Peres is a respected politician and former Israeli prime minister who has supported Sharon's initiatives and after departing Israel's Labor party has joined with Sharon's new Kadima party. But at 82 he may not be the man Israelis would anoint to succeed Sharon.

Nor do the Palestinians currently have a strong leadership lineup to engage with the Israelis. After the departure of Yasser Arafat, a man who long represented the Palestinian cause, but who will hardly be remembered as one who constructively furthered it, Mahmoud Abbas became the Palestinians' president. He has exhibited flashes of courage in his dealings with the Israelis but has not displayed the forcefulness the Israelis would like to see in curbing terrorism by Palestinian extremists. Nor has he been successful in convincing Palestinians that the corruption so notorious under Mr. Arafat has been eliminated. With divisions in Abbas's own Fatah party, and the Islamist Hamas party making gains as an orthodox political force, the Palestinians may be in as uncertain a political posture as are the Israelis currently.

If the momentum toward some Palestinian-Israeli accord is not to be lost, there seems little alternative but for the US to step in and take the lead.

This demand comes at a time when President Bush is facing a variety of challenges at home and abroad. But if Iraq is a crucial factor in the cornerstone of his foreign policy, namely the democratization of the Islamic world, peace between Israelis and Palestinians is just as critical.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was assistant secretary of state to George Shultz during the Reagan administration.

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