The stroke which has so severely incapacitated Ariel Sharon this week is a tragedy not only for him personally but for all of Israel and Palestine. Flawed as they may have been, Prime Minister Sharon's policies had restored forward momentum to a peace process that was fatally stalled, and his centrist Kadima Party seemed poised to win an electoral mandate to continue that progress. The sudden departure of Mr. Sharon from Israeli politics creates a crisis of uncertainty that could set the peace process back years.
By all reports, the Bush administration is sensible to the urgency of the situation. Secretary of State Rice has canceled planned overseas trips to remain in Washington and monitor the evolving Israeli scene. The loss of Mr. Sharon will hopefully shock the Bush White House out of the passivity that has marked its orientation toward Israel/Palestine since assuming office. U.S. influence is limited at this juncture, but it is critical that the White House use all of its powers to carry the peace process forward through this perilous transition.
What can the U.S. do, and what should U.S. policy be at this point? The U.S. cannot guarantee that Sharon's centrist Kadima coalition will remain intact or that its leadership will remain committed to Sharon's policy line should it do so. It can and must, however, continue to assert its traditional role as broker in the Israel/Palestine peace process to assure that the principles laid down at Oslo are not entirely abandoned.
The urgency of the crisis engendered by Prime Minister Sharon's affliction is exacerbated by the imminent and critically important elections to be held within the domain of the Palestinian authority on January 25. These elections are already clouded by doubts on many counts, some of which are beyond the control of the U.S. or Israel. Hamas seems likely to draw a substantial portion of the vote, an outcome that cannot bode well for the peace process.
Nonetheless, this likelihood does not make it wise or right for the Israeli government to obstruct the elections in any shape or form. Whatever success Mr. Sharon's unilateralism has enjoyed, Israelis will ultimately require a legitimate and authoritative Palestinian counterpart if the peace process is ever to produce a stable and postive outcome. Moves by the Israeli government to prevent polling in East Jerusalem are destructive of that end. Negotiations up to this point have established that East Jerusalem will and must be part of a future Palestinian State if it is to be geographically, demographically, and economically viable. To behave now as if the status of East Jerusalem is still in play is to throw the peace process in reverse and to undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian authority just when the peace process most requires that it be bolstered.
The U.S. should use any and all influence it can bring to bear to ensure that Palestinians are allowed to poll in East Jerusalem on January 25. A decline in the unity and focus of the progressive forces on the Israeli side of the peace process requires that there be a countervailing rise in unity and focus on the Palestinian side. Preventing polling of Palestinians in East Jerusalem will only erode the legitimacy and efficacy of the Palestinian authority at a moment when both Israel and Palestine can least afford such a contigency.