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Israeli election turmoil could be ahead after Ariel Sharon’s stroke, observers say

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke will unleash chaos in the country’s political process, a professor of Jewish studies told Baptist Press after the 77-year-old leader was stricken Jan. 4 and placed in intensive care following more than eight hours of emergency surgery at a Jerusalem hospital.

Sharon’s stroke has “thrown the Israeli populace into a terrible quandary,” said Michael Rydelnik of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute.

The centrist Kadima (“forward”) party Sharon founded last November is without an influential leader as Israel’s March 28 elections approach.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the conservative Likud party that Sharon left behind, is not prone to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians. And the Labor party’s new leader, a trade union federation executive named Amir Peretz, is “not trusted by the Israeli populace to negotiate or to resolve the land situation with the Palestinians,” Rydelnik said.

According to a poll released Jan. 4, Kadima would win 40 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, while Labor would win 19 seats in the balloting and Likud 14, with the remainder split among other smaller parties that might have provided Sharon enough support to form a government without needing Labor or Likud on board.

“Centrist parties generally have not worked in Israel,” Rydelnik said. “But this looked like it was going to be the exception, because the majority of Israelis trusted Ariel Sharon to resolve the situation with the Palestinians. However, if he’s not in charge, I don’t know of any one politician who could become the leader of Kadima and have the same kind of influence that Sharon did,” even though a number of political leaders had joined Sharon’s movement, including former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, formerly of Labor; Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, formerly of Likud; and former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who, as Sharon’s deputy prime minister, now is Israel’s acting prime minister.

Because Sharon was a longtime general in the Israeli army and had fought to defend the nation since its founding in 1948, Israelis have felt he is capable in security matters and yet able to make peace, Rydelnik said. “Netanyahu, they don’t see as having the ability to make peace,” he said. “And Peretz doesn’t have the ability to keep Israel secure.”

Redelnik urged heightened prayer for Israel in the days ahead, both for the nation’s elections and for protection. Without Sharon’s presence, he said, “it may actually give terrorists boldness” to attempt some elevated incidents of violence across the country.

Samuel Shahid, professor of Islamic studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said Sharon has had “a clear idea what he is planning to do in his relationship with the Palestinians” -– to push toward a peace accord, as signaled by the forced removal of Jewish settlers last summer from Gaza. “And he wanted to implement [his plan] in spite of all the odds against him from different directions. He was even ready to start a new political party in order to fulfill his vision and his dream.”

“Now, whether the Palestinians agree with him or not, this is a different story,” Shahid said, and Sharon’s “plan and his vision may not be approved by anybody who may come after him; [they] may have a different opinion. And that is going to take us to point zero.”

Bruce Mills, an American retiree living in Israel and member of the Jerusalem Baptist Church, said the church has regularly prayed for Sharon and other Israeli officials “because we’re commanded in Scripture to pray for the nation’s leaders.”

“We also pray that [Sharon and other leaders] would acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the king of the Jews and is the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord,” Mills said.

“Israel has definitely lost a trusted leader” with Sharon sidelined by the stroke, Mills said. “He has a great legacy. Prime Minster Sharon enjoyed the confidence of the majority of people. He was a military leader that the nation trusted in its negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

“Sharon has been trusted as being a military leader who would go into anything with both eyes open, be familiar with the consequences and have the security of the country and its best interests in mind,” Mills continued. Apart from Sharon, neither Netanyahu, Peretz nor Olmert command “the same degree of confidence that the people have [in Sharon] in terms of negotiating any further with the Palestinians.”

From his observations and conversations, Mills said, “Things could get better or they could get worse or they could stay the same” without Sharon’s active presence in Israeli affairs.

If progress can be made in the peace process, Israeli-Palestinian relations could follow the pattern of Israel’s relationship with Egypt following the 1978 Camp David accords initiated by President Carter.

“There has been a tremendous degree of civility between Egypt and Israel for many years,” Mills observed. “The Egyptians haven’t violated it, the Israelis haven’t violated it, and they’ve lived as neighbors.

The situation could get worse, Mills said, because in dealing with the Palestinian Authority “you’re dealing with Iran and other countries that are trying to have an influence” through the PA –- “countries that want the situation to deteriorate, thinking it would be in their best interests [to have] a constant low-grade war with more suicide bombers.”

Or the situation could “muddle along” as both the Israelis and Palestinians seek new leadership through their respective elections, March 28 and Jan. 25.

“They both might be so preoccupied that things stay the same for a long period of time, with neither side having a strong leader with a strong position, so things could pretty much stay the same as they’ve been over the years,” Mills said.
Lauri Arnold contributed to this story.