Ten years ago I accompanied John Major to the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, who had just been assassinated by a fellow Israeli. His death had a profound impact both on Israeli politics and on prospects for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. There are disturbing similarities between Rabin's fate and that of Ariel Sharon as he struggles for life after a second stroke and brain damage. Then as now a former general and hawk had become prime minister and had accepted that the raw exercise of military power was inadequate as a means of achieving permanent security and peace, and that a political solution was necessary.
Of course, Sharon is a much more controversial figure than Rabin. They might have shared a military background but Sharon has also been a right-wing ideologue for most of his political career. His reputation was badly damaged by his responsibility for the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He was associated with the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps by Christian militia. As housing minister he was able to initiate massive expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. And his insensitive visit to the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 2000 helped to launch the Palestinian intifada.
But Sharon also carries a credibility with the Israeli public that no other politician shares. When he said that a Palestinian state must be accepted; when he initiated the withdrawal from Gaza; and when he insisted on the dismantlement of all Israeli settlements in Gaza he carried public opinion with him to an extent that would have been impossible for Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak or any Israeli dove.
The real issue is whether any leader could persuade the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state with viable borders, a working economy and the normal characteristics of sovereignty. The alternative would be a fragmented Palestinian identity with neither cohesion nor credibility masquerading as a state, rather like the Transkei or Bophutswana in the old South Africa.
If that is all that Sharon wanted he would have been unlikely to have broken with the Likud party and formed his own political movement. Nor would Shimon Peres and his friends have offered him political support. It is precisely that issue of a viable Palestinian state that divides Sharon from the rump of Likud led by Binyamin Netanyahu.
If Sharon is unable to carry on the outcome could be disastrous for the peace process. Only Shimon Peres has a comparable reputation and experience but he would be unacceptable to all but left-wing voters. For the time being the reins of government have been transferred to Ehud Olmert, the Deputy Prime Minister. He is a former mayor of Jerusalem who has been very close to Sharon over the past four years. He is 60 years old which is ridiculously young by the standards of the 77-year-old Sharon and the 82-year-old Peres. Olmert is likely to be the man who will lead Kadima, Sharon's new party. He should not be seen as a soft option. As mayor of Jerusalem he was insistent on the integration of the Arab east of the city within Israel and was also a strong supporter of the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank around the city.
Israel's future is uncertain. Many Israelis feel it will take a miracle to find a worthy successor. But don't despair. The Israelis will often remind you that, in Israel, if you don't believe in miracles you are not a realist.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary from 1995-97Reuse content