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On the Record

Sharon’s Collapse “Leaves Political Crater”

MAXINE McKEW: From what, or how, you’re reading this thing, at this stage, should we nurture any hope at all, do you think, that Ariel Sharon can make a return to political life?

MARTIN INDYK: It sounds unlikely, particularly, in the short term available before the elections are supposed to take place at the end of March of this year. Given what they’re saying about his grave condition and the nature of the brain surgery that he’s been through today—I’m not a doctor obviously—but, I think, the general assumption in Israel tonight is that he’s not going to be returning any time soon, and that leaves a huge crater in the middle of Israeli politics.

MAXINE McKEW: I mean, it says a great deal doesn’t it, for the political evolution of Ariel Sharon that really around the world today his former political enemies—and certainly in Israel—are willing him to live, because he is seen as the best hope for peace, isn’t he?

MARTIN INDYK: Yes, I don’t know whether it’s the best hope for peace, but the best hope to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as well as Gaza—something he already did, in the case of Gaza.

And it is truly one of the great ironies of the Middle East, that this man who was vilified as the butcher of Beirut because of his involvement in the Lebanon war back in 1982, was only recently—last September, at the UN General Assembly—hailed as a hero in an organisation, which normally vilifies Israel and him.

MAXINE McKEW: What was the apotheosis for him?

MARTIN INDYK: I think that the critical thing for him was, first, when he first became Prime Minister, he was no longer in Opposition mode. He had the weight—felt the weight—of responsibility for the future of the Jewish state on his shoulders and he felt that Barak and Netanyahu, the prime ministers before him, had been highly irresponsible—he certainly said that to me when I was ambassador there—in the way that they’d kind of given away the assets and failed to understand what was at stake here.

And he was determined, I believe, as Prime Minister, number one, to ensure that his strategic relationship with the United States would be solid and there’d be no delight showing between him and the President; and number two, that he would be the one who solidified the borders of the Jewish state so is it would have a robust Jewish majority with Jerusalem as its capital. And the occupation—and he used this word—the ending of the occupation would take place on his watch.

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It’s not that he believed in making peace, but he believed in separating from the Palestinians. That’s what he started in Gaza.

MAXINE McKEW: How far would he have taken it? After Gaza, do you believe he would have contemplated a complete pullout from the West Bank?

MARTIN INDYK: Not complete, he had no intention of making a complete pullout, but I believe that his decision to leave the Likud Party, was because he knew that the Likud Party would not allow him in what he expected would be the last term of his political life, to do what he felt was necessary to ensure the well-being of the Jewish state, which was to rid Israel of responsibility, not just for the 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza but also for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. That’s what he intended to do.

How did he intend to do it? In my understanding of his thinking he was going to, essentially, pull out from about 70 per cent of the West Bank and sit behind that fence and wall that he’s been building, expand the settlements there and the settlement blocks behind the fence and wall, and that would be his life’s work.

MAXINE McKEW: That being the case, then, is what has happened today as consequential a moment as perhaps what happened 10 years ago when prime minister Rabin was assassinated?

MARTIN INDYK: Yes, I think the parallel is a very important one, because Rabin was indeed trying to separate Israel from the Palestinians through the peace process. He said at the time—in a speech just before he was assassinated—that he wanted to separate out of respect, not out of hatred. Four-and-a-half years of violence of the intifada has led to a great deal of mistrust and hatred between Israelis and Palestinians. And Sharon’s purpose, like Rabin’s purpose was to separate. But there was no longer any respect left, it was essentially out of hatred that he was going to separate, but he’d started in Gaza and the tragedy—if he is, in fact, forced to quit the political scene tonight—is that he will not have been able to complete the task. Just like Rabin was not able to do it and there is, it’s very hard to see who will fill that political vacuum in Israel and will be able to do it.

MAXINE McKEW: Well, is there a political scenario whereby you see this could happen if further disengagement is the goal?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, look. What there is, what Sharon was picking up on—because he was the master politician, in terms of having his finger on the pulse of the Israeli people—was that a majority of Israelis do not want to be in the West Bank. They do not want to rule over the Palestinians. They see how it has corrupted them. And, so, he was reflecting that.

Now, that opinion is still there. Israelis are in shock tonight because they thought they had a way forward and a man who was leading them there. They still want the way forward. The question is: is an Ehud Olmert or Tzippy Livny—who also went with Sharon from the Likud to the Kadima Party—will they emerge with credibility to fill the giant shoes that will be vacated by Sharon and lead the Israeli people, not so much to peace, I think that’s far distant now, but to this separation and disengagement from the Palestinians.

MAXINE McKEW: Well Kadima, of course, in the short-term has to get over the shock of what has happened today and they’ve only got until March, when the elections are due. Surely, in the short-term, the person who is most advantaged is the current head of Likud, Binyamin Netanyahu?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, in one sense, yes, because he’s been prime minister and he’s seen as a national leader with national security credentials. The leader of the Labour Party, Peretz, is a union leader who doesn’t have credentials. But, Binyamin Netanyahu’s got a problem: he inherited a rump right-wing party. He opposed the disengagement from Gaza and he cannot easily or credibly move from the right to the centre to take advantage of the vacuum. And I think he’ll find it very difficult to do that.

MAXINE McKEW: Well, now, most importantly, and finally, and, I guess, difficult to read: what will Sharon’s absence mean on the Palestinian side, do you think? Particularly, at a time when we’re seeing the rise and emergence, greater emergence of Hamas?

MARTIN INDYK: Yes, well, on the Palestinian side, what you have at the same time as Sharon apparently quitting the scene is Abu Mazin leading a weak and collapsing Palestinian authority. The institutions of the would-be Palestinian state are simply not functioning. We see that, particularly, in Gaza with the chaos there.

In the political vacuum there, Hamas is stepping in and that means, in these circumstances, that when you have a moderate leader taken out in Israel and a moderate leader ineffective on the Palestinian side. Tonight I think the extremists in the region will be breathing a sigh of relief and saying, you know, “The momentum is on our side now”. And, so, it’s not good news, not just for Israel, but for those who want to see, eventually, a settlement of this conflict.

MAXINE McKEW: Martin Indyk we have to end it there. Thank you very much for your time tonight.

MARTIN INDYK: Thank you.

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