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After Sharon, what next?
ISRAELI PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke on 4 January has brought widespread political instability to Israel, changing the nature of the general election there due on 28 March. However this is merely the latest in a series of roller-coaster developments in Israel and Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has witnessed growing political chaos as the planned end-of-January general elections loom. The PA, made up of leaders of the Fatah organisation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is almost powerless, its politicians regarded as corrupt and weak.
By contrast, the Islamic Hamas made sweeping local electoral gains throughout the year. A nascent civil war already exists between warring factions in the southern Gaza. PA President Abbas may postpone elections and set up an "emergency" government with the participation of Hamas.
Society teeters on the edge of complete disintegration as a result of years of corrupt PA leadership and decades of occupation by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).
In recent years, pressure has built up on Israel's ruling class from different quarters concerning its oppression of the Palestinians. It has come from US imperialism, the impossibility of crushing the Palestinians militarily and from the social instability caused by the IDF occupation of Palestinian territory.
Also, the Palestinian population is growing faster than the Israeli Jewish one and will overtake it in the area covered by Israel and the PA. This led Sharon and most of the Israeli ruling class to change their historic position on the building of a Greater Israel (involving the annexation of the Gaza strip and West Bank).
US imperialism is desperate to make the region more stable to protect its strategic interests. It has withdrawn its opposition to the building of the Separation Wall around the West Bank and accepted that the major Israeli Jewish settlements there will remain. However the Bush administration has pressed for some appearance of concessions from above to attempt to prevent an explosion from below.
Yet, Sharon's disengagement from Gaza in August has not alleviated the Palestinian masses' poverty and oppression. Genuine national liberation for the Palestinian people has never been on offer from this so-called "peacemaker".
In fact the Gaza withdrawal has been used as camouflage for increased oppression of the Palestinians in other areas. At the same time the Sharon government accelerated the building of the 620 kilometre-long Separation Wall. This has isolated 242,000 Palestinians (10% of the population) in the closed military zone between Israel's border and the western side of the wall.
SHARON'S POSITION was strengthened by the withdrawal from Gaza. However, this was overshadowed by a political earthquake which rocked the country in November: Amir Peretz, leader of the Histadruth trade union federation, won the contest for Labour Party leader on the basis of promising radical reforms. Peretz is the first working-class Sephardic Jew ever to win this position.
These events influenced Sharon's decision to resign as leader of the right-wing Likud, create a new political party called Kadima (Forward), and call new elections for late March. Opinion polls predicted that Sharon would win the elections comfortably.
Sharon had hinted that if he won the elections a further unilateral withdrawal from more isolated Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank could take place, leading to a final imposed settlement on the Palestinians.
But all this has changed. Sharon has suffered severe brain damage. Most commentators believe his political career is over and have praised his role as a "peacemaker". However, Ariel Sharon comes from the most reactionary section of the Israeli ruling class, who have always proposed brutal military tactics as a response to all opposition by the Palestinian and Arab masses to their oppression.
Most notoriously Sharon was Defence Minister during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon when the infamous massacre in Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps took place. Sharon was found "personally responsible" by an official Israeli government commission for the massacre. Evidence pointed to the fact that Sharon encouraged the reactionary Phalange militia to enter the camps in retaliation for the assassination of their leader Gemayel.
Throughout his career, Sharon supported the views of the most reactionary sections of the Israeli ruling class: he voted against a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979; he opposed the Oslo agreement; while his highly controversial visit to the third most holy Muslim site in the world, the Al-Haram Ash-Sharif/ Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was the catalyst for the Second Intifada.
Since then the impossibility of crushing an entire people's struggle for national liberation has been brought home to the Israeli ruling class. The withdrawal from Gaza was one result.
Vacuum opens up
BUT NOW the ruling class' plans are frozen as a vacuum opens up in Israel. The media adulation of Sharon is intended to whip up national unity and prevent damaging divisions during this precarious time for the ruling class. This is why Olmert, Sharon's right-hand man, took over as interim Prime Minister so quickly and also why there is such pressure for Kadima to choose a new leader.
Despite previous predictions that Kadima would win the elections, it is still a party yet to be formed. Its regulations give Sharon sole authority to decide the list of candidates for the elections. It seems for the moment that Kadima is maintaining its poll standing. But even leading Kadima figures are concerned that in Sharon's absence the party could tear itself to pieces while choosing its election list.
Other parties could gain from these difficulties. Likud's new leader Benjamin Netanyahu may benefit. However, he is deeply unpopular because of his vicious neoliberal policies as Likud Finance minister.
The situation could open up for Peretz, whose support dropped when he toned down his radical rhetoric. Before Sharon's stroke Peretz stood to only gain 18 seats (down from 31 when he was first elected, and three less than Labour has now). These figures could increase if Kadima goes into crisis.
What is desperately needed on both sides of the national divide are movements with leaderships which represents the genuine interests of the working class, both Palestinian and Israeli. These would have to struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by democratic socialism.
Sharon's record shows all that is on offer by capitalism in the Middle East today: bloodshed, brutality and war. A struggle for socialism would, by comparison, provide the conditions for peaceful co-existence and harmony.
This is an edited version of an article on the CWI website: www.socialistworld.net