Doing It Sharon's Way' - or Not

The transition from the status of hitchhiker to driver obliges the members of Kadima to do more than merely demonstrate an alternative leadership to that of their ailing leader.

Once it became clear to that motley political collection known as Kadima that Ariel Sharon would no longer be able to lead them, they adopted a new bonding agent for themselves and their party: "Sharon's way." But the departure from the political arena of the "sun of the nations" makes it possible - even before the election - for Kadima to refute the contention that it is a one-man party. The rapid embrace of the leadership of Ehud Olmert is intended to prove that the life span of the newborn political party will be longer than that of its legendary leader.

The transition from the status of hitchhiker to driver obliges the members of Kadima to do more than merely demonstrate an alternative leadership to that of their ailing leader. Olmert, Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni and Haim Ramon would not be fulfilling their obligation if they merely tried to extrapolate the missing details and chart a diplomatic program - for if there ever was such a thing, it has been lost forever in Sharon's brain. Politicians who expect that the public will treat them as leaders in their own right must adopt a critical perspective on the policies they are proffering. First, they have to ask themselves if Sharon is leaving the State of Israel in a better strategic position than it was when he received it five years ago. They owe the public an answer to the question of whether in his tenure, the chances of putting an end to the violent conflict here were improved, or whether they were only weakened.

Sharon leaves behind the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the expectation for a unilateral disengagement in the West Bank. Based on polls conducted after his hospitalization, this formula seems to guarantee victory to Kadima, be it under the leadership of Olmert, Peres or Livni. However, before they adopt the formula in its entirety, they would be wise to take a look at the annual poll conducted by Hebrew University's Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, headed by Dr. Khalil Shikaki. They would find in it a revelation or two about the price of withdrawal without agreement.

The poll, conducted in December, reveals that 82 percent of residents of the territories consider the evacuation of settlements from the Gaza Strip to have been a victory for the armed struggle. Some 68 percent believe the intifada helped them achieve national and political objectives they would not have achieved by negotiations.

The implications of these findings were reflected in the major triumph of Hamas candidates in local elections held last month in the territories. The perception that violence pays is expected to benefit candidates of the rejectionist movements in the elections for the Palestine Legislative Council, which are scheduled to be held at the end of this month.

Sharon's departure from the decision-making circle should provide an opportunity to reexamine the "there's no partner" approach that he received as a gift from Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton, who made Yasser Arafat the scapegoat for their failure at Camp David. Barak went off to build his house, Clinton is traveling the world, Arafat has been gathered unto his fathers, and who's left? The "no partner."

Over the past five years, the place of a diplomatic approach has been usurped by an unprecedented military effort to bring calm to the territories. What he was unable to achieve by targeted assassinations, Sharon tried to do by blockades. What he didn't manage to do with blockades, he tried to do with fences. What he didn't succeed in doing with fences, he tried to do with a unilateral withdrawal. Only one approach wasn't tried throughout the period - a diplomatic process with the new Palestinian leadership headed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

All of the polls conducted in the territories point to the existence of a partner. Although the Truman-Shikaki survey shows a decline in public support in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem for the Clinton plan from the end of 2000, two-thirds still support a permanent settlement that would put an end to the conflict, and 55 percent back a compromise on the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders, with territorial exchanges. Eighty percent favor an extension of the cease-fire that was supposed to expire a few days ago. Among the Israeli public, 80 percent support a permanent settlement with the Palestinians (compared to 76 percent a year ago, and 66 percent two years ago). As was the case a year ago, 64 percent are prepared to accept the Clinton plan.

Sharon's unilateral approach is not a recipe for peace with the neighbors. It is not even the only recipe for victory at home.