Ariel Sharons stroke comes at a pivotal stage in both Israeli and Palestinian election preparations. Palestinians know how much can hinge on a single man. The death of their charismatic president Yasser Arafat in November 2004 allowed long-stalled high-level peace talks to resume. Israel refused to meet with Arafat; few Israelis believed he had the will to make peace. But while Arafat's more dovish successor Mahmoud Abbas may have a greater will to make peace, it is doubtful whether he has the charisma and popular legitimacy to secure it. Without Arafat, the ruling Fatah party has fragmented, crippling its ability to make progress.
So Palestinians have mixed feelings about Sharon's health crisis. Certainly, the veteran general has been as much a hate figure for Palestinians as Arafat was for Israelis. Few Palestinians believe in the now-widespread portrayal of Sharon as a 'man of peace' many saw the Gaza withdrawal as a distraction from ongoing settlement-building in the West Bank. Palestinian gunmen handed out pastries on news of his first stroke, while television around the world showed Palestinian children waving celebratory banners.
But Sharon at least had the will and the character to push the August 2005 disengagement through, despite strong opposition from his former Likud party and his traditional right-wing support base. As a result, he split the Likud party and broke Israels political mould.
Any of the three main Israeli parties could win the 28 March election: the untested, centrist Kadima, yet to sketch out its future vision and uncertain of survival without Sharon; the right-wing Likud, led by hawkish former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; or the left-wing Labour, led by the dovish Amir Peretz, a trade union leader with links to Israel's Peace Now activists. It is unclear whether any has a leader with the combination of political will and popular legitimacy needed for a peace deal.
The situation is further complicated by Israel's coalition politics. No single party has ever won a majority in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament). With this year's vote likely to be even more split than usual, the leading partys policymaking ability will be limited by the need to maintain an alliance.
The view from the Gaza Strip
Despite the withdrawal of 9,000 settlers and soldiers last year, Israel still has great power over Gaza. In Gaza City last November, Palestinian lawyer Raji Sourani of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights told me, "This was not a withdrawal, but a redeployment. They evacuated 21 settlements, which is fantastic, but we have no airport, no port, no freedom at sea, and were experiencing the usual level of assassinations and bombardments."
It would be near impossible to reverse the withdrawal of settlers. But Israeli soldiers could potentially re-enter the territory on a temporary basis in response to Palestinian attacks. Since the withdrawal, Israel has already carried out targeted assassinations and 'sonic booms' in Gaza, and declared a unilateral security zone inside the Strip along the border. Moreover, as Palestinian militants have continued to fire rockets and mortars into the Israeli border town of Sderot, Israel has declared a 2.4km no-go area in northern Gaza.
Israel has enormous economic power over Gaza, controlling most points of entrance and exit to the Strip, as well as its food and electricity supplies. Gaza's economy is extremely dependent on Israel as a major labour and export market, while domestic economic activity has been stunted by years of conflict and frequent security closures.
The withdrawal brought some improvements. Crucially, Gaza now has internal freedom of movement. Some fifty million US dollars worth of greenhouses and irrigation systems that formerly belonged to settlers has been handed over to Palestinians, creating several thousand new jobs. Palestinian farmers started exporting cherry tomatoes, strawberries and sweet peppers in mid-December.
Travel and trade remain constrained, however, as most of Gaza's border crossings are still controlled by Israel. In one major step in mid-November, Israel agreed to hand day-to-day control of the Rafah passenger crossing (between Gaza and Egypt) to the Palestinian Authority (with European Union monitoring). This means Palestinians can leave Gaza without permits from Israel.
But in the event of a suicide bombing or a security alert, Palestinian access to Israel and to the West Bank can be shut down completely. After two suicide bombings in Netanya and Tulkarm in December, the Erez passenger crossing into Israel was shut down: at the time of writing in early January, Erez has been shut since 16 December, according to Hamada al-Bayari of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) in Gaza City.
There are valid reasons for security closures: the three main border crossings have all been targeted by bombers in the past. But the effect is to punish the whole society. This includes the several thousand Gazan Palestinians who hold jobs in Israel but cannot at present travel to work. (After Decembers bombings, Israel also indefinitely postponed compliance with an earlier agreement to set up escorted bus services between Erez and the West Bank.) Moreover, imports and exports can only move through Israeli-controlled crossings, which are subject to frequent closures on security grounds.
Nevertheless, economic interdependence means there is potential for constructive economic co-operation. As a trade union leader who has arranged talks between Israeli and Palestinian labour unions, Peretz would probably take an interest in helping Palestinian workers enter Israel. Shaher Saed, the secretary general of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions, claims "Unlike former Israeli leaders, [Peretz] understands the importance of people-to-people contacts and how such contacts are enhanced through labor."
By contrast, Sharon's disengagement plan stated that in the long term, the number of Palestinians working in Israel should be reduced to zero. Likud can be expected to follow the same long-term aim.
Economic factors could also be used as a weapon by a more hawkish government. For example, some hardline Israeli commentators suggest Israel should cut off Gaza's electricity supplies in the event of a suicide bombing.
The West Bank defining developments
In the West Bank, the stakes are even higher. While 8,000 settlers were evacuated from the Gaza Strip and from four West Bank settlements last August, at least 9,000 new settlers have since moved in to the West Bank (according to Israeli officials quoted by Reuters and the BBC). To put these figures in context, there are some 240,000 settlers in the West Bank and a further 200,000 in East Jerusalem. The West Bank makes up over 95% of the Palestinian Territories and unlike Gaza includes key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.
Persistent settlement-building is one of the reasons Palestinians have little faith in Israel's commitment to the US-backed 2003 road map towards peace, which stipulates that Israel should not expand settlements. One European diplomat based in Jerusalem tells me, "Neither side has met their commitments under phase one of the roadmap, though both claim they have. Israel has not stopped building settlements while the Palestinians have not dismantled the terrorist infrastructure."
Israel says otherwise, arguing that building within existing settlement boundaries does not constitute expansion. Yet driving around Ma'ale Adumim, the largest West Bank settlement, this argument seems largely semantic. The built-up area of Maale Adumim covers seven square kilometres. In comparison, its official municipal boundary covers 53 square kilometres an area larger than Tel Aviv. So the built-up area can be expanded more than seven times over without actually constituting 'expansion' in Israel's terms.
A second source of concern for Palestinians is the ongoing construction of the separation barrier, particularly around Jerusalem where it will separate Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from their counterparts in the West Bank.
And the third key problem is Israeli security controls. There are some 350 fixed checkpoints, plus additional moving checkpoints, on Palestinian roads in the West Bank (Israelis use separate roads). The European diplomat observes, "For Israelis, it takes half an hour to travel from Jerusalem to Jenin. For Palestinians, its usually a day."
What might the different Israeli parties do if elected? It is almost inevitable that more West Bank settlements will be dismantled, a move that most of the public appears to support. However, there also seems to be a general consensus in Israel that major settlement blocs will remain.
Even the pro-settlement Likud party would probably carry out some withdrawals but would maintain and expand those it sees as the most strategically important. This would include a very controversial step: building settlements in the 'E1 area', which would link Ma'ale Adumim with East Jerusalem settlements.
A built-up E1 would split the Palestinian-inhabited West Bank into two separate northern and southern parts, possibly linked by a tunnel. It would also mean East Jerusalem was virtually encircled by settlements. Together with the completed separation barrier, these settlements would separate East Jerusalem from the Palestinian population of the West Bank and reduce the chances that it could become the capital of a future Palestinian state, as Palestinians want.
Kadima might also resume construction in this area if it forms a coalition with Likud, though it would be unlikely under a Kadima/Labour coalition. Sharon froze construction plans in the face of US pressure. However, my tour of E1 with Sarah Kreimer of Israeli NGO Ir Amim suggested new building was likely at some point. According to Kreimer, plans are already in place to move a major West Bank-based Israeli police station into E1.
She told me, "Settlements usually start with something innocuous like this, sometimes an archaeological site. It's hard to object to a police station because it concerns security, but why put it in a place where it's far from most of the West Bank inhabitants it's meant to be protecting?". She has a point. Getting out of the car in E1, near the site of the proposed police station, I saw miles of desert. The only sign of life was a distant Bedouin shepherd leading his sheep across a grassless hillside.
As for Labour, Peretz has repeatedly called Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza 'immoral'. Nonetheless, in practice, Labours policies would be constrained by the wishes of electorate and coalition partners, suggesting it would aim to retain large settlements including Ma'ale Adumim. Peretz recently authorised the Labour housing minister Isaac Herzog, a member of Sharon's cabinet, to allow the construction of 350 new homes in Ma'ale Adumim.
But Labour would be more likely to countenance land swaps in return, as envisaged in the Geneva Accord of December 2003, and would probably also cut subsidies to settlements and offer financial support to settlers who voluntarily relocate within the Green Line (some say they are willing to move but cannot afford to because West Bank property prices are not exactly soaring).
All the parties would be likely to continue building the separation barrier started by Sharon, but Peretz might seek to change its route to the 1967 borders (as Peace Now advocate). Internal closures are also likely to persist, though there is potential to ease some of the restrictions on goods transport.
Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza also face local political challenges. In Gaza, security has deteriorated as the date set for Palestinian elections approaches. With the ruling Fatah party in crisis, Hamas is regaining strength and opinion polls suggest it will win 30% of seats in Gaza if parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 January go ahead.
Over the next ten weeks, further chaos in Gaza, more suicide bombings, or major electoral gains by Hamas will increase the likelihood of Israelis electing a more hawkish government. In turn, a more hawkish Israeli government would weaken the Palestinian moderates. As Raji Sourani says, "Negotiations and agreements strengthen the rule of law. The alternative is the rule of the jungle and then not only Hamas, but bin Laden will come."
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