- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

This time the kaleidoscope that is the Middle East hasn’t just shifted, revealing a startling new pattern of dangers. This time it has shattered. For the forceful personality at the center of all the jagged pieces is suddenly out of the picture.

A stunned Israel is caught between praying for an old general who may be fighting his last battle and worrying about what will happen now without a leader who has been both sail and anchor of their ship of state.

The Arab world seems caught between realistic appraisal of Ariel Sharon as a partner for peace and unholy glee at its old nemesis’ incapacitation. Emotions war with one another.

Israel hasn’t been as stunned since the assassination of another prime minister who made a difference — Yitzhak Rabin, another general who, despite all his instincts, gambled on peace.

But the two cases are scarcely parallel. Yitzhak Rabin led an old, well-established party. Ariel Sharon had just cobbled his new party together when he was stricken. His party may have the right ideas, but it no longer has the one candidate Israelis trust to lead them. There are such things as indispensable men in history, and Mr. Sharon has been one of them.

The only real historical parallel may be the death of Theodor Herzl, the Viennese visionary, playwright, pamphleteer and political organizer who turned an age-old dream into a modern political movement called Zionism. It’s been a century since he, too, collapsed without leaving a clear successor.

In one of his flights of imagination, Herzl predicted that within 50 years the world would recognize his efforts had produced a Jewish state. Almost on schedule, the first prime minister of that new state — David Ben-Gurion — would be listening to the jubilant crowds in the streets of Tel Aviv celebrating the declaration of the first Jewish commonwealth in two millennia.

But according to Israeli historian Michael Oren, David Ben-Gurion wasn’t celebrating that first night of independence but confiding his anxieties to his diary. The least of his worries may have been the impending invasion of the newborn state by the combined forces of six Arab armies. Like the rest of Israel, he understood there was no alternative to victory.

What worried Ben-Gurion more was whether a people powerless for so long could handle power without turning on themselves. He even had to coin a new Hebrew word — mamlachtiyut — to express the idea of political sovereignty, the Jews having been so long without a state.

Before Israel’s bloody war of independence was over, Ben-Gurion would wage a civil war against his rival on the right — Menachem Begin, head of the Irgun — and incorporate his own leftist faction’s shock troops, the Palmach, into a national army subject to the new state’s control. It’s a wonder he was able to do both. A wonder? This being the Holy Land, call it a miracle.

Mahmoud Abbas, the embattled leader of a nascent Arab Palestine, faces much the same challenge today. There is little doubt, as Ariel Sharon recognized, a Palestinian state will come into being, but there is considerable doubt whether it can hold together. Without a strong leader, it could deteriorate into anarchy even before it is declared.

Who speaks for the Palestinians? Islamic jihadists openly bent on Israel’s destruction now compete with a Palestinian Authority riven by its own factional disputes. The choices before Palestinians in 2006 bear a remarkable resemblance to those facing Israelis at the birth of their state in 1948.

But unlike David Ben-Gurion in his time, the nominal leader of this aborning Palestinian state, Mahmoud Abbas, wavers. And the violence grows. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side of the hazy line between the two peoples, all has been put on hold. Ehud Olmert, the deputy who has assumed Ariel Sharon’s duties as prime minister, said, “This is a difficult situation that we are not accustomed to.” The man has a gift for understatement.

When a political vacuum has been created, the surest and best way to fill it is by popular vote. Israel’s elections are still scheduled for March 28, ready or not. And the Palestinian elections scheduled for Jan. 25 are still on, if only barely. If they’re canceled, it will not be a good sign.

Everything is on hold for now, leaving a vacuum for violence to fill. But the same gathering force that offers the best hope for violence-wracked Iraq could also lead the way to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is called democracy.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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