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Sharon illness a setback for Bush peace efforts

WASHINGTON—The sudden disabling of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has thrown President Bush's approach to the Middle East conflict in doubt, further diminishing the odds of reaching Bush's goal of an independent Palestinian state, former U.S. policymakers and regional analysts said Thursday.

Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had banked heavily on Sharon, backing the former general in his unilateral attempts to set Israel's borders and hoping his break-away party, Kadima, would triumph in March elections. The administration agreed with Sharon that he had no choice but to pursue peace with the Palestinians not on the basis of negotiations but on his own terms.

Sharon suffered a serious stroke on Wednesday, and it was widely viewed as unlikely that he'd ever return to power. The apparent end of Sharon's political life has thrown yet more uncertainty into the Middle East at a time when the "peace process" is defunct, the experts said. On the Palestinian side, instability is growing.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said Sharon's stroke could set back hopes for peace. "This could not have come at a worse time," he said. "It brings into serious question everything that Sharon was trying to do."

Sharon, distrusting Palestinian leaders, had little enthusiasm for peace negotiations, or even Bush's "road map" peace plan. Instead, he fortified Israel's position by building a security wall along much of its border and evacuating Jews from the Gaza Strip.

Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor, said that under Bush, "American strategy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been predicated on the assumption that Ariel Sharon could deliver, and in the end they were going to allow his agenda to play a dominant role."

Telhami, speaking by telephone from Cairo, and other analysts said there is little the White House can do to affect the dual earthquakes rocking Israeli and Palestinian politics, except to begin planning for the post-Sharon era.

Publicly, U.S. officials limited themselves Thursday to praise for Sharon.

Rice called the Israeli prime minister "a wonderful and historic figure" and suggested Israelis would seek peace with Palestinians regardless of who leads them.

"I do believe that the desire for peace, the desire for a stable relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, is one that runs wide and deep in the Israeli society," Rice said at a breakfast with reporters.

But others said the United States—preoccupied by the war in Iraq—will have little incentive to get deeply involved in peacemaking until Israeli and Palestinian leadership struggles sort themselves out.

"There hasn't been a `peace process' for some time, and I don't see any signs there's going to be one resuming," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Alterman said the key question now is how the Palestinians react to Sharon's apparent departure from the scene. A brewing power struggle pits President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction against the more militant Hamas organization.

"The real effect of this could be the collapse of any potential Palestinian partner" to negotiate with Israel, Alterman said. "Then you have to rebuild a potential partner from scratch."

Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, agreed. "The ball is really in the Palestinians' court to a large extent," he said.

"I don't think there's a lot we can do, other than soften the edges," said Walker, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. He said the United States should continue to try to work out problems left after Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip. Sharon ordered Israeli soldiers to evacuate from the territory in August.

Rice signaled that the Bush administration would continue its role in trying to bring security to the increasingly chaotic Gaza Strip. She also called for the Jan. 25 Palestinian elections to be held on schedule, despite the growing likelihood of ballot box victories by Hamas. Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist group.

"I don't really believe that we can favor postponing the elections because we fear an outcome," Rice said. "Elections have to be held when they are expected to be held."

But Telhami said Sharon's condition has increased the chances the elections will be postponed over the issue of voting rights for Arabs in East Jerusalem. Any Sharon successor would not want to be seen capitulating on the issue, he said.

Abbas has threatened to delay the elections if Israel carried through on a threat to bar voting in East Jerusalem. Israel's action stems from its opposition to campaigning by Hamas.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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