Among Arabs, sober views of relations after Sharon

Israel's leader took a hard line, but had the political clout to make difficult decisions regarding the Palestinians.

As Arabs absorbed the news of Israel's ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, there was little public optimism that any change in Israel's government would boost prospects for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon is a reviled figure in the Arab world. As defense minister in 1982, he was found by the Israeli government to be indirectly responsible for the massacre of up to 2,000 Palestinians at refugee camps in Lebanon by Israel's Christian Lebanese allies.

This history, and his personal style, have led to shrugs at best and occasional expressions of glee in Arab capitals. But many experts on Israel-Palestinian relations say that with Sharon out of the political picture, Palestinians and their Arab allies may find he was their best possible friend.

"People say, 'the situation will only change when Israelis say, 'We were wrong, we're withdrawing from all occupied territories.' But this is far from correct,'' says Abdel Moneim Sayid, head of the Al Ahram Center in Cairo, a think tank. "You're losing a national figure ... he was capable of leading and taking difficult decisions. Right now, there's no one to replace him."

Just as President Nixon's conservative credentials let him to make a breakthrough visit to China in 1971, Sharon's hard-line credentials enabled him to make concessions that perhaps no other Israeli leader could.

Arabs see him as the man who killed the Oslo peace process, but followed that with compromises he could make politically palatable. He oversaw the emotional pullout from Gaza last August, and many Israeli analysts expected that if he formed the next government, he would make further concessions in the West Bank.

Gershon Baskin, the Israeli cochairman of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research & Information and a Sharon critic, says Sharon wouldn't have achieved a final peace settlement, but would have improved prospects for those who followed him.

"He was intent on continuing this process of withdrawal, and hopefully coordinating with the Palestinians," Mr. Baskin says. "Even if it is a unilateral action, if he can remove 70 or 80 settlements, and take Israel out of 60 percent of the West Bank, ... that's enough for the next three years, and no one else in Israel is capable of doing that."

Baskin also says that Sharon's address at the UN in September, recognizing statehood as a Palestinian right, was a "leap forward."

To be sure, while Israelis see Sharon as a hawk who moved to the center, in the region he's often seen as having pulled Israel right. Shortly after becoming premier in 2001, he cut off peace talks and forged a course predicated on long-term security, rather than an eventual settlement. Even as he planned a Gaza pullout, for example, Sharon started building the controversial separation barrier. "The Palestinians look at him as the master of unilateralism," says Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator. Still, Ms. Ashrawi says, Sharon's moves could be seen in a broader context.

"He hasn't negotiated, but he has dismantled the settlements, which was a precedent and we can't ignore that,'' Ashrawi says.

If Hamas, which supports Israel's destruction, does well in Palestinian elections later this month, analysts expect some Israelis to move right. Many who trusted Sharon even when they disagreed with him could throw their support to Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the Gaza pullout and seems unlikely to further peace efforts.

"Kadima ... changed the nature of the Israeli center," says Mr. Sayid. "[It] is based on trust of Sharon. In his absence, it won't do well. It will create a fractured society incapable of making decisions and a strengthened extremist right-wing - at a time when Palestinians will be moving right as well."

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