by Peter Hirschberg
(IPS) JERUSALEM -- The events that unfolded inside Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's official vehicle on the evening of Dec. 18 could turn out to be a key element in deciphering what Israelis and Palestinians can expect in the course of 2006.
Having just exited Jerusalem, Ariel Sharon suddenly felt ill. It is still unclear whether he lost consciousness on the way to hospital -- his driver did a U-turn on the highway and headed back to Jerusalem -- but what is not in doubt is that he suffered a minor stroke. His doctors insist there is no lasting damage and that his ability to function has not been impaired.
But for the 77-year-old Sharon, who is unlikely to serve more than one more term as prime minister -- if he emerges victorious when Israelis go to the polls on March 28 -- the recent brush with mortality may have been a further catalyst when it comes to implementing any ideas he may have regarding the conflict with the Palestinians.
Most believe that the former general and architect of the settlements, who began wrecking his handiwork with the August evacuation of all of Gaza, plans to continue in the same vein in the West Bank.
That is the most compelling explanation for why he left his ruling Likud party, which was filled with recalcitrant lawmakers who opposed his Gaza pullout and who would certainly oppose any future withdrawals, to set up a new party.
In 2006, this logic will be put to the test: will Sharon outline a blueprint for the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank, or will Palestinian suspicions -- that he exited Gaza in order to tighten Israel's grip on the West Bank -- prove accurate?
If Israel's departure from Gaza held out the possibility of renewed momentum on the peace front, events on the eve of the New Year have all but extinguished these hopes. The firing of rockets by Palestinian militants into Israel has resumed, as have the suicide bombings. So has Israel's targetting of militant leaders for assassination.
And, in the final days of 2005, Israeli artillery guns began incessant shelling of a strip of territory in northern Gaza in an effort to create a no-go zone. The plan: to force those firing the rockets out of range of Israeli towns.
For the first part of 2006, Israelis and Palestinians will be focusing less on each other and more on themselves, as both peoples go to the polls. The Palestinians are first, with their parliamentary elections scheduled for January 25.
Mahmoud Abbas's election as Palestinian president in January 2005, on a platform of ending the chaos and violence in the West Bank and Gaza, momentarily lifted Palestinian spirits. But the Palestinian leader goes into the parliamentary elections significantly weakened -- in the eyes of his own people and the world -- and at the head of a ruling Fatah party that is in disarray.
In determining the Fatah electoral slate, young activists who grew up in the territories and who spearheaded the Intifadah uprising have challenged the corruption-tainted old-timers, who grabbed most of the positions of power when they returned to the territories with Yasser Arafat in the mid-90s.
Chaos has deepened in the territories. In recent months, armed groups have begun kidnapping foreigners in Gaza, demanding either jobs or the release of prisoners in Israeli or Palestinian jails. Until now, those abducted have been released unharmed.
Gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a Fatah-associated militant group, have also begun forcefully occupying election offices to protest the absence of their representatives on the party's electoral slate. Militants recently exchanged fire with Palestinian police as they tried to take over the main electoral office in Gaza City in a standoff that lasted several hours.
The breakdown in law and order and the division within Fatah has opened the way for Hamas. In stark contrast to Fatah, the Islamic group, which is competing in parliamentary elections for the first time, has been a model of discipline, presenting its list without any visible infighting.
In fact, so dire is the standing of Abbas and Fatah, that there has even been speculation of a Hamas victory -- especially in the wake of recent triumphs by the Islamic movement in local elections in major West Bank cities.
A Hamas victory, even a strong showing, for that matter, could dramatically reshape the diplomatic reality in the region in 2006.
Congress has already threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas participates in the Palestinian government. The European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana said recently that his organization would have a hard time supporting a Palestinian government that included a party that countenanced violence and opposed Israel's right to exist.
Many Israelis would view a Hamas victory as vindication of their contention that there is no peace partner on the Palestinian side. There are some Israelis -- a minority -- who believe, though, that the inclusion of Hamas in the political process will moderate the radical Islamic group and ultimately transform it into a potential negotiating partner.
In striking contrast to Abbas, Sharon is riding a seemingly unending wave of popularity. Having successfully implemented his Gaza withdrawal plan, despite vociferous opposition from Jewish settlers and lawmakers inside the Likud, he is on course for a third term as prime minister.
As he enters 2006, the polls predict his new Kadima (Forward) party will win some 40 seats in the 120-seat parliament. His closest rival, the Labor Party, is languishing on 20 seats in the polls, while his former Likud party is hovering around 15. Even the minor stroke he suffered failed to dent his poll numbers.
If the polls remain stable, and ultimately turn out to be accurate, Sharon will be in a position to set up a center-left government with the Labor Party, opening the way for a possible further withdrawal in the West Bank. For now, though, the prime minister is insisting that the internationally-backed road map peace plan, which has been moribund almost since its inception three years ago, is the way forward.
Most Israelis, especially those intending to vote for him, do not believe Sharon. They know the prime minister has never been enthusiastic about the road map and believe, or hope, at least, that he will carry out another unilateral pullback in the West Bank. Sharon, though, may have no intention of ceding any more territory.
Do not expect any answers to the Sharon riddle in the first half of 2006. If he wins the election, he will be busy setting up a government and then trying to get the budget through parliament.
Those waiting for an answer to whether Ariel Sharon believes he has already cemented his place in history, by withdrawing from Gaza, or whether he still harbours far more momentous plans in the West Bank, will likely have to bide their time until the second half of 2006.
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