updated 1/5/2006 11:43:01 AM ET 2006-01-05T16:43:01

The news that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a significant stroke on Jan. 4 and is undergoing surgery adds yet another big unknown to the increasingly difficult politics of Israel, the Palestinian areas, and the wider region.

The Palestinians are scheduled to hold general elections on Jan. 25, with Israel to follow in March. But with the 77-year-old Sharon gravely ill, the outcome of both votes -- and whether they'll take place at all -- is now in serious doubt. Sharon's Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has temporarily taken the reins, but Sharon has no obvious successor waiting in the wings.

At a time when Israel -- and, even more so, the Palestinians -- is experiencing an epochal political transformation, Sharon's departure could well create a dangerous vacuum. While the Palestinian leadership has no great fondness for him, they have come to respect him, despite his long record as a scourge of the Arabs. A senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently remarked privately that Sharon, while an extremely difficult negotiator, kept his commitments, but his Likud rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could not be trusted.

Gaza withdrawal
Sharon has long been a prominent and controversial figure in Israeli politics. Allegations of corruption have swirled around him and his family. Perhaps his nadir came when he was forced to resign as Defense Minister over the fallout from the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps by Lebanese militiamen, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

But Sharon recovered and came to dominate the Israeli scene in his twilight years. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, in a backlash to the second Palestinian intifada, which he helped spark with a provocative mission to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 2000. He struck back hard at the Palestinians, crushing a refugee camp in the city of Jenin and launching a policy of targeted assassinations of militant leaders.

Sharon enjoyed the support of settlers, whose movement he encouraged, and other right-wingers, but he was always more of a tactician than an ideologue. Under the influence of his old friend, Shimon Peres, the veteran Labor leader, Sharon seemed to realize that continued Israeli occupation of densely populated Palestinian areas was not sustainable over the long term. Last year, in a sharp break from his past, he orchestrated an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Gaza and a handful of settlements in the northern West Bank. The move was extremely unpopular with the settlers' movement and others of Sharon's right-wing supporters, but he went ahead and pulled it off with surprisingly little difficulty.

Unilateral moves
More recently, Sharon, who was frustrated by opposition to what he considered necessary steps for long-term Israeli security, broke away from the right-wing Likud Party, which had long been his political home. He founded a new party, called Kadima, or "forward." Sharon won the support of moderate Likud and Labor figures and other heavyweights, including Peres. Until an earlier, mild stroke in December clouded his prospects, he looked like an easy winner in the March elections. A resurgent economy, buoyed by venture-capital money, helped.

Where exactly Sharon was heading, though, was far from clear. Aides suggested that he had conceded Gaza to the Palestinians in order to retain Israel's hold on much of the larger and more prosperous West Bank. A controversial security fence, which Sharon has been using to separate the Palestinian areas from Israel, has seemed as much a tool for defining de facto borders as for preventing suicide bombers from crossing into Israel.

Sharon has preferred unilateral moves to negotiations with the Palestinians -- a stance he could easily get away with, given Mahmoud Abbas' weakness and the Bush Administration's reluctance to be drawn deeply into Arab-Israeli issues. Whether his pullbacks from Palestinian areas would have eventually led to an uneasy, unofficial peace is hard to say. But if this latest illness marks the end of his career, even Palestinians may regret the departure of this beefy figure from the scene.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.All rights reserved.


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