New era for Mideast peace process

Quite unexpectedly, Israel is in search of new political leadership, and by extension, so is the Middle East peace process. Sidelined as prime minister by hospitalization, Ariel Sharon leaves a power vacuum unlikely to be filled by anyone who can match his political strength, acumen, and appeal.

His unforeseen absence from the center of Middle East politics points to a new era in which willful, large personalities with considerable political support no longer dominate the Israeli-Palestinian scene.

After the 2004 passing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who proved to be too cautious a negotiator, much hope was placed on his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. But Mr. Abbas has shown weak leadership. A man of good intentions who has set a change in tone by denouncing violence, he's still unable to control Palestinian militants and the corruption and disarray within his own Fatah party and government. He faces stiff competition in parliamentary elections slated for Jan. 25 (if, indeed, they aren't postponed).

Now Israel faces a period of uncertainty that could similarly result in weakened leadership. Vice Premier and former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert is filling in as acting premier for 100 days. Meanwhile, national elections loom March 28, with no unifying, strong leader waiting in the wings to compete in the poll, which Mr. Sharon was expected to win.

From early in his military and then political career, Sharon has shown remarkable spine, earning him the nickname "the bulldozer." In the 1973 Middle East war, he disobeyed orders and sent his division across the Suez Canal, helping to turn the tide for Israel. But as defense minister, he engineered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon - a debacle - and had to resign after the massacre of Palestinians at two refugee camps there.

The willfulness that had him ignoring orders in the Middle East war resurfaced in the peace process. Yes, he gave a weak nod to President George Bush's 2002 "road map" to a Palestinian state. And then he promoted peace his way, ordering last year's unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip. It was the first Israeli handover of land that Palestinians claim for a future state.

It was also done against fierce opposition in the conservative Likud Party - which Sharon founded and late last year abandoned to form his own centrist party, Kadima. Before being hospitalized this week, word leaked out that Sharon planned further unilateral moves: a select pullout from the West Bank, allowing for a temporary Palestinian state in part of the West Bank and in Gaza.

Israelis may well miss the strong and steady hand of Sharon. But should they miss his unilateralist approach to the peace process?

Withdrawal without consulting the Palestinians leaves long-term issues such as Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees unnegotiated, festering, and liable to foment more violence. It also runs counter to a US interest not to give Al Qaeda one more reason to exist.

A one-person peace process is not really a process and is unlikely to result in lasting peace. That will still require both sides - and now, more than ever, an engaged United States - to negotiate a deal, whoever Israel's future leader may be.

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