The anticipated end of the political career of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has created uncertainty about the future of the Middle East peace process.This content was published on January 5, 2006 - 19:14
But representatives of Switzerland's Jewish community as well as Palestinian and Israeli lobby groups agree that it is impossible to foresee the next moves.
In November Sharon broke with the conservative Likud bloc to set up the more moderate Kadima party. The new grouping was considered the frontrunner for the March 28 parliamentary election.
Many Israelis had hopes in Sharon, a dominant political figure for decades. The former defence minister and army general was considered to be the only politician capable of shaping the definitive borders of the Israeli state.
Vreni Müller-Hemmi, president of the Swiss-Israeli Association, said the end of the Sharon era didn't really come as a surprise given the health and age of the prime minister.
"But it comes at a critical moment," Müller-Hemmi said.
She expects major changes and even political turmoil, as preparations are underway for elections in Israel and the Palestinian territories. But she believes changes are not necessarily all for the worse.
"A majority in Israel supports a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and similar steps in the West Bank."
Müller-Hemmi, a member of parliament for Switzerland's centre-left Social Democrats, hopes there could also be a bigger role for Israel's Labour Party under its new leader, Amir Peretz.
Israel is unlikely to be plunged into chaos after the Sharon era, argues Daniel Vischer, president of the Switzerland-Palestine Association.
"No doubt Sharon was a dominant figure who had the support of both the political circles and the armed forces. He's the only one who could have pushed through a peace agreement with the Palestinians," said Vischer.
But Vischer, a member of parliament for the Green Party in Switzerland, remains sceptical about Sharon's real motives for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
"He did not really stand for the peace process," said Vischer, who compares Sharon to the former French president, Charles de Gaulle.
He sees a power vacuum in Israeli politics until after the March elections, and is concerned that the former prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, of the Likud bloc, could emerge as the big winner.
A shift to the right is likely to encourage militant extremist groups among the Palestinians, such as Hamas, according to Vischer.
Thomas Lyssy, spokesman for the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, sees major difficulties ahead for the region.
"There is no heavyweight in Israeli politics like Sharon," said Lyssy.
He said Labour Party leader Peretz has been a credible trade unionist but has no experience on the international stage. Paradoxically, Netanyahu, who is a well-known figure, is unlikely to find a majority in Israel for his hard-line stance in the peace process, said Lyssy.
Nevertheless, he is cautiously optimistic for the future. "Israel is a stable democracy and has survived many crises in the past. It will be able to cope with the latest situation."
Saïda Keller-Messahli, board member of the Switzerland-Palestine Association and director of the Foundation for Palestine, believes the end of the Sharon era could mark the beginning of a period of renewal.
She said that there could be a "fundamental change" in Israel, because people would see that "Sharon's iron-fisted politics has in all these years brought peace and security not one step closer".
Keller-Messahli added that she was more optimistic about Peretz, the new leader of the Labour Party.
"He is from a different generation, separated by nearly 50 years from the old guard," she said.
Jochi Weil-Golstein, project coordinator for non-governmental organisation Medico International Switzerland, told swissinfo the power vacuum brought with it significant risks for society in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.
He cites the problems of unemployment in Israel, divisions between the various population groups as well as the planned elections.
According to Weil-Golstein, the risks on the Palestinian side are at least as complex and potentially even more serious: long-term occupation, the building of more settlements, unemployment and poverty, as well as battles in the run-up to the legislative elections scheduled for January 25.
He said he hoped that the forces of democracy, and in particular the desire for compromise, would prevail during the elections in Israel and the Palestinian territories and that those who take up office show themselves able to work together.
swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud
At the age of 77, Ariel Sharon is the oldest prime minister in Israel's recent history. His deputy Ehud Olmert has taken over the running of government.
Early parliamentary elections will go ahead as planned on March 28. Sharon's departure is a bitter blow to the party he founded just a few weeks ago, Kadima. Moderate forces from the Likud bloc and liberal politicians from the Labour Party joined forces in it.
1928: Ariel Sharon was born on February 26 as Ariel Scheinermann.
From 1948: Commander in the Israeli army.
1973: Sharon's tank unit crossed the Suez Canal counter to command. In December he was elected to parliament.
1977-1981: Agriculture minister under Menahem Begin.
1981-1983: Defence minister. He resigned after international criticism of his implication in the massacres in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila.
2001: Elected prime minister.
2005: In November, he announced his resignation to go into new elections with his own party.
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