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U.S.: Leaders Praise Sharon Amid Doubts Over Mideast Peace Process

Ariel Sharon (file photo) (epa) U.S. leaders are praising Ariel Sharon as a leading Mideast peace figure but are declining to discuss the next steps after the expected departure of the ailing Israeli prime minister. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed there is a broad desire in Israel to find a lasting peace with the Palestinians. And she urged Palestinian leaders to move forward with planned elections that U.S. officials have cited as part of regionwide democratization efforts.

Washington, 6 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush described Ariel Sharon as "a man who had a vision for peace."

Condoleezza Rice called Sharon a "wonderful, historic leader."

But neither Bush nor Rice would discuss the next steps in the tenuous Middle East peace process if the Israeli prime minister fails to recover from a massive stroke. Sharon has been a controversial figure. But many analysts say his unilateral moves, such as vacating Gaza Strip settlements, represent the most substantial progress on the peace process in recent months.

Rice told reporters on 5 January that it is not appropriate to speak yet of Sharon’s succession. But she expressed confidence that Israelis are committed to peace with the Palestinians. "I do believe that the desire for peace, the desire for a stable relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, is one that runs wide and deep in the Israeli society," she said.

Rice also urged Palestinian leaders to follow through with legislative elections planned for 25 January. Those elections have been clouded by Sharon’s deteriorating condition. There are also fears that Hamas, a sponsor of suicide bombings against Israelis, will make political gains against the mainstream Fatah movement.

Rice said it is important to hold the elections as scheduled. "I don’t really believe that we can favor postponing elections because we fear an outcome," she said. "I think that’s not appropriate. The Palestinian Authority needs to do everything that it can, Fatah needs to do everything that it can, to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that life under a freely elected Palestinian legislative council that would then work with the president that has been elected there, that life would be better."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said on 5 January that Sharon’s likely departure from the political scene will temporarily derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Ehsan Ahrari, a U.S.-based independent strategic analyst, told RFE/RL that Washington would have little leverage on the peace process during an Israeli political transition. "There’s very little the United States can do to influence Israel when you see a Sharon successor, especially if it’s not [former Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu," Ahrari said. "He or she has to learn, to grow in the job, and gain the confidence of the Israeli population, and the Palestinian fermentation is not helping the situation either."

Two U.S. envoys had been scheduled to meet with a Sharon aide on 5 January, but postponed their trip. Reuters said the meeting was apparently set up to settle a dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over Palestinian voting in Jerusalem.

Judith Kipper, who directs the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, a private policy-research group, expressed doubts that there will be any surge in U.S. diplomacy, despite the tensions facing the region.

"Both [Israelis and Palestinians] are somewhat in a dilemma, and there’s no reason to believe that the U.S. is going to engage more in the future than it’s engaged in the past -- and it hasn’t engaged. There’s been some positive pronouncements, but really no engagement. And very little happens without the U.S. being between the parties," Kipper said.

Doctors say Sharon will be kept in a medically induced coma at least until 7 January to prevent further damage from the stroke. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, has assumed the position of acting prime minister.

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