Video: Examining the Sharon factor

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/6/2006 7:33:11 PM ET 2006-01-07T00:33:11

After all the hope and promise of a new peace plan launched on June 4, 2003 — more than three years ago — has now dissolved into confusion without Ariel Sharon. There is an enormous power vacuum among his possible successors.

"What none of them has, however, and needs to prove to the Israeli people, is the kind of toughness on security that Sharon has," says former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.

President Bush had staked his Middle East policy on Sharon’s taking further steps to create a Palestinian state, like his decision to force right-wing settlers to withdraw from Gaza.

U.S. officials don’t know if his temporary successor, Ehud Olmert, will even win the election in March — and if he does, whether he can get Israelis to give up more land.

On the Palestinian side, the United States also sees a dangerous leadership vacuum.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has disappointed the United States, failing to reform his military, clean up corruption or crack down on terrorism.

And his rivals in Hamas, still designated a terror group by Washington, have surged in popularity — threatening to dominate elections at the end of January.

Former State Department official Jon Alterman says it’s a crisis for the Palestinian government.

"When they are about to face legislative elections, when they are trying to understand how they are going to face the world, when there is increasing lawlessness in Gaza, they’re finding themselves shut down, not having an Israeli partner," he says.

Another U.S. worry is more violence. That could help Israel's right wing, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes the American peace plan.

With, at best, a caretaker government in Israel and political chaos among Palestinians, U.S. officials see little chance of any immediate progress toward peace. Even worse than political stalemate would be another Palestinian uprising and Israeli retaliation — dooming real peace for years.

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