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News Analysis: Israel's Regional Policy Likely To Continue With Or Without Sharon

Ariel Sharon (file photo) (epa) Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains in critical condition after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage. Doctors treating Sharon say it is unlikely he will ever return to work. Concern over Sharon's worsening health prompted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to postpone a long-scheduled trip to Indonesia and Australia. What might be the impact of Sharon's likely departure from the political scene on Israel's current regional policy?

Washington, 7 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Sharon was a military tactician as well as a politician -- a fact that was manifest often in his muscular approach to regional policy. Some analysts characterize that policy as "unilateralism." Arguably the best example was Sharon's orchestration -- amid a deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- of the strategic withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip that ended in December.

"The most important innovation that Sharon had as a prime minister vis-a-vis the Palestinians was to recognize that the era of traditional diplomacy is, if not over, then at least, certainly in abeyance and that if Israel wanted to secure its interests vis-a-vis the Palestinians, it would have to act alone and not wait for the time when an agreement could be reached with them," says Robert Satloff, president of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies in Washington.

This policy of unilateralism is not expected to disappear with its inventor's departure from the political scene. That is because, today, support for it among the Israeli public is simply too strong.

Sharon was able to use that support to create a new party, Kadima, that has attracted supporters both from Sharon's own former party -- the right-leaning Likud Party -- and the left-leaning Labor Party.

Schlomo Brom, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and a guest scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, predicts the movement Sharon created with the Kadima party will survive Sharon's departure from the political stage.

"He connected himself to this huge central part of the Israel electorate," Brom says. "Now his party will continue doing it because these voters are frustrated. They are disillusioned with the old parties on the right and on the left. And because of that, I believe that the most probable scenario is a scenario in which the [Kadima] party will continue to hold on. It will unite around a new leadership. Most probably it will be Ehud Olmert, [Sharon's] deputy, because that is the default alternative, not because [Olmert] is so liked or so popular, etc."

Satloff agrees that Kadima will survive and Israel's policy of seeking peace through unilateral initiatives will continue. He says all that might change is the timing.

"Without Sharon, they lack the engine that made Kadima move," Satloff says. "So they'll have to spend a lot more time building a party, becoming cohesive, before they can take a measure that Sharon as just one guy could have decided upon."

As many experts now predict few changes in Israel's current policy toward the Palestinians, they also expect no great changes to occur in Israel's policy toward Lebanon and Syria.

"Israel decided some time ago to leave the treatment of Syria to the U.S.A. because it is very convenient for Israel -- when, actually, the Syrian regime is cornered because of their own conduct, of course," Brom says. "And I don't see -- I don't believe -- a new [Israeli] leadership will have different considerations."

But change can be initiated not only from Jerusalem but also from Damascus, Beirut, or Tehran.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was quoted on 5 January as having said he wishes that Sharon, whom he called "the butcher," was dead, but he has issued no other blanket declarations.

State officials in Syria and Lebanon also have refrained from commenting on Sharon's illness.

Phil Wilcox, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says he sees the militant Lebanese Hezbollah party, whose guerrilla war persuaded Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon, as one wild card whose actions could upset the current status quo.

"I think that there will be a wariness on the part of the Hezbollah, who are capable of making trouble in the north, and Syria, which has some contacts with the Hezbollah," Wilcox says. "And that there probably will not be major provocations before (Israel's March parliamentary) elections. There could be. That would probably strengthen the candidacy of the Likud and [former Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. Who knows? One can't count on the good sense and rationality of the Hezbollah or the Syrians at this point."

Analysts say that should Sharon's Kadima party somehow do poorly in the upcoming March elections and Likud win strongly, Israeli regional policy could change course.

The power to determine how much and in what direction would then be in the hands of Sharon's old rival, Netanyahu. He is a leader who previously has proven willing only to make small redefinitions of Israel's borders within the context of the currently stalled peace process.