Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Iran's Fate Tied to Sharon's Health

News that spread over the weekend that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had suffered a minor stroke not only placed the Israel's leadership in jeopardy, but it also raised the stakes in both the Palestinian peace process and in the escalating war of words with Iran. Sharon is perceived by many as the most likely leader to be able to achieve a peace accord with Palestinians, and he is also the leader most likely to show the greatest restraint in dealing with Iran's belligerent anti-Semitic rhetoric. (Washington Post: Sharon To Leave Hospital).

While the Prime Minister struggled with the after effects of his minor stroke, his rival Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister, soundly defeated two other candidates for control of the Likud Party; a party Sharon abandoned last month. With general elections slated for March, Netanyahu appears poised to regain the top seat in Israel.

A vocal critic of Sharon's "land for peace" agreement with the Palestinians, Netanyahu would clearly follow a different path in dealing with troubles in that region. Of even more interest lately would be how Netanyahu would handle the issue of Iran. Sharon had already given Iran an artificial target of March for resolving the nuclear issue before Israel would be forced to act "non-diplomatically". It's doubtful that Netanyahu, a conservative hard-liner, would show even that much restraint.

Between Hamas jockeying for a spot in the Palestinian elections - something that is opposed by the US and the EU -, continued border conflicts in the Gaza and West Bank, and Iran's verbal provocations and attempts to obtain nuclear fuel technology, a hard-liner may be just what Israel needs right now. With the Israeli's on the retreat throughout Sharon's tenure, a shift towards a non-conciliatory stance with Iran and the Palestinians is sorely needed.

The land-for-peace deal was ill-fated from the beginning and has not borne any fruit. If anything, it has emboldened Hamas, resulted in more attacks from the West Bank, and positioned the terrorist group for a stake in upcoming elections. As high as the stakes are in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, however, they are dwarfed by the growing conflict with Iran. Any sign of weakness on that front would be devastating to Israel. Even without the stroke, it's doubtful Sharon had the political philosophy or history capable of setting the proper tone for that confrontation.

So it would seem at this point that Iran's fate is closely tied to Sharon's health and political future. At 77, the latter is in grave danger. Many of his former supporters now view Sharon as too old to continue in the post, making change in March extremely likely. With the front runner emerging as former Prime Minister Netanyahu, Iran may be well advised to tone down the rhetoric. Under Netanyahu, the dog may not bark but it most certainly will bite.


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