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Without Sharon, great uncertainty for Mideast

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses the Mideast without Ariel Sharon

MSNBC:  Tim, we know how volatile the Mideast can be.  Ariel Sharon has been known to be difficult to deal with, but he did want to try to find a way to work a peace deal with the Palestinians.  What’s the situation like there now?

Tim Russert:  Sharon is certainly one of the most decorated warriors in the history of Israel.  He’s someone who had been considered “hardline”, who had evolved away for his own Likud Party and was on the verge of forming a news party – someone described it as a more moderate party.

Now he’s on a respirator and, based on all the information that we are receiving, his chances of surviving are very, very remote.

That clearly puts in jeopardy an awful lot of planning and hope and aspirations – not only for the Israelis and Palestinians, but the American people as well.

MSNBC:  Without Sharon, what’s the future direction of Israeli politics and policy of Gaza and Palestinian settlements?

Russert:  There’s great uncertainty because there is no one in his former Likud party, of any consequence, who shares his views.

Sharon is also someone who, I believe, the leader of the Palestinians, Mr. Abbas, had gotten to respect – and he’s someone that President George W. Bush had relied on heavily.  And now, where are we?

There’s one school of thought that, perhaps, like after the death of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson was able to come forward and put into place many of the programs President Kennedy wanted.  But it’s difficult to concoct that same scenario for a place like the Middle East.

MSNBC:  We hear there’s no natural successor to Sharon, but is it likely that whoever succeeds him will maintain his centrist course?

Russert:  Not necessarily.  Because the leaders of his former Likud Party have a very different view and it’s very uncertain as to who would emerge as the next leader of Israel.  It’s definitely a roadblock,  a setback in the path towards peace.

MSNBC:  Polls show the majority of Palestinians and Israeli’s do want some kind of deal… they want the trouble there to end.  Is there some inertial movement towards peace that even a loss of a leader like Sharon can’t put an end to?

Russert:  That’s the hope.  Many of the people I’ve spoken with say maybe this is one thing we can do in the memory of Sharon.  Remember following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, how President Lyndon Baines Johnson successfully enacted many of the measures Kennedy had advocated?  There’s always that hope.

And there’s a recognition in the Middle East that demography is destiny – that the fact is you have to reach a political settlement because the Israelis are there and having children, the Palestinians are there and having children and you have to reconcile your differences and try to live in peace because the alternative is constant bloodshed.  And people have had enough of that.

There has to be a political solution.  But it takes years of work and effort, one step at a time.  And it takes someone with the credentials, frankly, of Ariel Sharon.

Just as Nixon went to China as the hard-line anti-communist and opened the door to communist China, it takes a “hard-line” Israeli to convince the more conservative elements of Israeli society that a peace agreement is a good one.

It took someone with the rock-solid “hard-line” credentials to make people agree the idea of uprooting the settlements, for instance.  Only he could have gotten away with it, because he’s the one who put them in place.

MSNBC:  Who will you be talking with Sunday, on Meet the Press?

Russert:  We’ll have all the latest on Ariel Sharon, obviously.  But we’ll also have the Senate Judiciary Committee’s John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Schumer of New York on the start of the Supreme Court nomination hearing for Judge Samuel Alito.  Then the New York Times' James Risen on his new book on the CIA, "State of War".  Plus we’ll have the National Review's Washington EditorKate O'Beirne and former NARAL president Kate Michelman in a debate on abortion and "feminism".  That’s all this Sunday, on Meet the Press.