Saturday, January 07, 2006

After Sharon, what now???

Since I first heard the news of Ariel Sharon's stroke, I haven't been able to pull myself away from the TV or internet. Unfortunately as the days pass, the thirst for news is motivated less by "Prime Minister" Sharon's health and more by concern for Israel's political future. It was already clear days ago that Ariel Sharon's political career was over. But what about the country he was governing?

In recent years, Ariel Sharon has become something of an enigma, the turn of events has been hard to take in. I was living in Israel at the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and despite being 10 years old at the time, can still remember the annimosity that many felt towards him. My parents attended the demonstration in Tel Aviv protesting the massacre. 400,000 were there, 10% of Israel's population at the time. I was living in Israel again in 1991 when Sharon was appointed housing minister, vowing to build ever more settlements.

Yet in an extraordinary turn of events, the "bulldozer" so loathed by the Arab world has recently spent more time bulldozing everything he helped create (like settlements and the Likud Party) than bulldozing Palestinian land. Sharon has showed himself to be something of a pragmatist and many on the left who depised him were prepared to consider voting for him.

It's a testament to just how far Israeli politics have come. For too long, the Knesset has been the world's worst advertisement for proportional representation, with small parties such as the settlers movement extracting concessions out of all proportion to their size in return for their participation in a coalition government. The result has been an increasingly sectarian society, where special interests are put ahead of the concerns of the majority. Sharon's Kadima party seemed set to break that deadlock, with a party representing the non-idealogical mainstream. But without Sharon in charge, there is no-one with the cross-party support necessary to hold Kadima together, no one else in the party is trusted. The Palestinian leadership's concern for Sharon's welfare is a pretty good indicator of how uncertain the future is without him.

For the time being, like Sharon's induced coma, Israel's political system is in suspended animation. For how long this can hold is anybody's guess.