Sharon and the Middle East Peace Process

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Secretary of State Condoleezza underscores Ariel Sharon's key role in U.S. policy in the Middle East by canceling a trip to Indonesia and Australia to focus on the situation in Israel. Sharon's incapacitation could mean that Washington will have to recast its policies toward both Israelis and Palestinians.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Ariel Sharon played a big role in US policy in the Mideast. Today Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a planned trip to Indonesia and Australia to focus on the situation in Israel. As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, Sharon's incapacitation could mean that the US will have to recast its approach toward both the Israelis and Palestinians.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Ariel Sharon's dominance of Israeli politics and the relative weakness of the Palestinian leadership gave Sharon enormous influence in shaping US policy toward the Middle East. Edward Walker, the president of the Middle East Institute, says that as President Bush became increasingly disillusioned with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he grew more respectful of Sharon.

Mr. EDWARD WALKER (President, Middle East Institute): He fundamentally bought into Sharon being the architect of the Middle East policy for the United States, to a great degree, and that served the president well, as he looked to other problems in the region.

FLINTOFF: Power is now in the hands of Sharon's deputy, Ehud Olmert, but it's not clear whether he can exert the kind of influence that his boss had. Stephen Cohen, the national scholar for the Israel Policy Forum, says there's a need for someone in the Bush administration to become the new architect of Middle East policy.

Mr. STEPHEN COHEN (Israel Policy Forum): I don't think that anybody has emerged to want to take that role in the Bush team. Maybe by now Condi Rice recognizes the need for that and it is possible that Olmert will want to take on that role himself, but he'll have to develop a relationship with Bush in order for that to happen.

FLINTOFF: Cohen and Walker both say that the first order of business for US foreign policy will lie not with the Israelis but with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, who faces a serious challenge from the militant group Hamas in parliamentary elections set for January 25th. Again, Edward Walker.

Mr. WALKER: I would be encouraging very strongly to take steps to eliminate corruption in the Palestinian Authority. That corruption is what is giving Hamas such great popularity.

FLINTOFF: The US and Israel condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization so Stephen Cohen says the stakes in the Palestinian elections are huge.

Mr. COHEN: And if the Palestinian elections produce a victory for Hamas, that will stop the process in its tracks because it'll be very difficult for the United States or for Israel to have an appropriate Palestinian partner under such circumstances.

FLINTOFF: Edward Abington is an adviser to the Palestinian Authority. He says elections are the only way to produce a revitalized leadership that will be legitimate in the eyes of the Palestinian people. Abington notes that the Israelis also face elections in March, and says the US will have to deal with the Israeli leadership that emerges. All three observers say that with Sharon leaving the Israeli political scene, and with the prospect of relegitimized Palestinian leadership, there's an opportunity for the US to take a more active role. Edward Abington.

Mr. EDWARD ABINGTON (Adviser to the Palestinian Authority): But whether the Bush administration will see this as an opportunity or whether it will continue to pay lip service to the idea of a two-state solution but not work hard to achieve it I think remains to be seen.

FLINTOFF: The State Department says Secretary Rice's main concern right now is for the condition of Prime Minister Sharon, and she's likely to face many more challenges as the region's leadership makes an unexpectedly rapid change. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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