United States begins planning for future without Sharon

Sunday, January 8, 2006

WASHINGTON -- In deference to an ailing ally, the Bush administration is saying little publicly about how it intends to fan flickering Mideast peace hopes if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains incapacitated or does not survive.

Privately, American officials are gathering their thoughts and making some tentative moves despite uncertainty about who would succeed the 77-year-old prime minister.

Sharon remained in serious condition Saturday after undergoing his second brain operation in two days on Friday, two days after suffering a major stroke and bleeding in his brain.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cleared her schedule, canceling visits to Indonesia and Australia to remain in Washington and on top of the situation.

"She thought it was the right thing to do, to be here with her foreign policy team," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

And even as administration officials awaited developments in Jerusalem, they were trying to address the deteriorating security situation in Gaza. The U.S. security coordinator, Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, has returned to the region to try to get a handle on violence in the Palestinian territory.

"There is no central authority," said Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt. "It is not a question of terrorism, but pure, outright criminal behavior."

Administration officials decline to acknowledge that they inevitably have to look beyond Sharon. Spokesman McCormack said only that "our focus is on our solidarity with the Israeli people in what is a tough time."

But Walker, a longtime diplomat in the Middle East and Washington, said in an interview that the first thing U.S. officials must be thinking about is what President Bush would say at a funeral. And Bush's attendance is essential, he said.

Mapping a strategy

"They are mapping out a strategy," Walker said. "They have to be ready to move."

U.S. officials "are going to have to pin down" Ehud Olmert, who temporarily took the reins of power from Sharon and could be a top contender for prime minister in a previously scheduled March 28 election.

Before Sharon was stricken, polls pointed to victory for Kadima, the centrist political party Sharon founded after he broke with many of his longtime supporters in the hard-line Likud.

Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister generally placed to the right of Sharon, is a likely contender for the top job.

Walker said he thought the administration favored Kadima, but added: "They cannot get too enmeshed in the election campaign."

Daniel Kurtzer, also a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, said there were probably two things on the minds of administration officials.

One is how to stabilize the situation, Kurtzer said in an interview. He said that means "ensuring that the leadership that emerges in the post-Sharon era continues along the line Sharon has laid out -- a tough response to terrorism, but flexibility and creativity in peacemaking."

The second, Kurtzer said, is that the administration would be "laying down markers on the Arab side, particularly with the Palestinians, not to take advantage of what they might perceive to be a period of instability in Israel."

The retired diplomat added, "My guess is that the administration is working on both to try to prevent a downward spiral."

Mideast history is instructive, with predictions often off the mark. But there are constants: U.S. efforts to maintain order and keep Israel and the Arabs on a peace track.

Sharon illustrates how events in the Middle East often defy expectations. The tough, unyielding ex-general wound up endorsing Palestinian statehood and withdrawing all Jewish settlers from Gaza and part of the West Bank.

Nearly three decades ago, Menachem Begin, another dedicated hardliner, agreed to relinquish Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty.

The Arab leader he negotiated with, Anwar Sadat, had vowed only months before the accord that peace with Israel was a worthy objective, but not until the next generation.

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