Fears that the Palestinian elections could be delayed were partly eased when Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defence minister, said Palestinians would be able to vote in East Jerusalem, a condition demanded by Palestinian authorities for the elections to go ahead.

 

Israeli officials had threatened to ban voting in East Jerusalem because candidates from Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction and is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the European Union and the United States, would appear on the ballot.

 

At the same time, tensions are rising between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant Palestinian political party.

 

Aljazeera.net's Adla Massoud spoke with Dennis Ross, former US peace envoy to the Middle East, about the effect Sharon's exit will have on prospects for peace in the Middle East.

 

Aljazeera.net: How might the Middle East political landscape look without the presence of Ariel Sharon?

 

Dennis Ross: I think that there is a big difference in at least one important respect: With Sharon there for the last couple of years, he's been the driver of basically everything. Everyone has responded to Sharon. The initiatives that come out of Israel, there's been no initiatives from anywhere else. The Bush administration responded to his initiatives.

 

But I would say the Palestinians did the same. The Palestinians pretty much waited to see what he would do and then in effect responded. Everyone I think had the luxury of seeing what Sharon would do and letting him be the driver of events.

 

Now, if you take Sharon out of the picture, Sharon is not in a position to be able to continue to be launching initiatives, and that means you cannot be so confident that there will be more initiatives coming out of Israel.

 

So you're saying Sharon was the only man in the Middle East with a plan?

 

He was certainly the only one in the Middle East who was acting on a plan. And I don't see anyone else seeming to act as if they first have a plan and then doing something about that plan, at least in terms of trying to promote co-existence. There may be those who have plans that are not about co-existence and maybe are acting on them.

 

How will the US react to the fact Sharon may no longer play a part in the Middle East road map to peace?

 

I already think Sharon was very much on his own road. And his own road was unilateral disengagement from Gaza which was not a part of the road map. I believe there was no reason for him to have left the Likud party unless he was determined to take additional steps in the West Bank. He had very low expectations about the Palestinians.

 

I think the better Hamas does [in the elections] in the sense, the more it would have added to his low expectations about the Palestinians. I think there would have been some additional withdrawal from the West Bank but it would have come on terms the Palestinians might not have liked, in terms of giving Americans agreement on the settlement blocks, concretely not vaguely.

 

And also giving the Americans agreement on the redefinition of Jerusalem. So, in a sense, what you have is, with Ariel Sharon out of the picture, you're less likely to see additional initiatives related to the West Bank anytime soon.

 

Why do you say Sharon had very low expectations of the Palestinians?

 

Because I think he did not see them doing very much. I know from my own experience, he viewed Abu Mazin [Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president] personally as someone who had good intentions but he also perceived him as someone who was not very capable of acting on those intentions.

 

From Sharon's standpoint, he did not see the Palestinians really doing anything to transform the situation with regard to the infrastructure of terror. He also did not see them doing much to govern themselves effectively.

 

Palestinians in Gaza are extremely fragmented. I think there haven't been decisions taken to decide between the young guard and old guard of Fatah. I think Fatah itself has lost credibility, because the Palestinian Authority (PA) hasn't delivered much, because the international community has made promises but has not delivered on the promises.

 

A lot could have been done in the past year to build the authority of the PA and Abu Mazin's authority to show that his way of non-violence actually worked but all the pledges remained pledges and did not materialise on the ground.

 

The Palestinians could have done much more to get their act together but they sure did not get much help from the international community to do so.

 

Israel has an ailing leader and the Palestinians have an ailing administration. Do you think the US should be doing more?

 

Yes. On the Israeli side, things are now going to have to be geared towards the internal realities related to sorting things out and positioning themselves for the elections.

 

A lot more should have been done not only by the US and the international community in the past year but also by the Arab world that has money to help Palestinian development and that was just not forthcoming.

 

The UAE and Saudi Arabia made promises to finance the construction of 4200 housing units that would have provided lots of jobs, but unfortunately it did not materialise. It could have made a huge difference. Much more needed to be done in the past year.

 

Now in the aftermath of the Palestinian elections, there should be an intensive effort made to help the Palestinians get their act together. There ought to be a work plan put together with new policies, there ought to be an empowered prime minister, there ought to be help from the outside both financially and even on the security area where support for the security services needs to become much more systematic.

 

And there ought to be a public posture on the part of the United States and the Arab world to help the Palestinians take new steps.

 

There needs to be a priority given certainly in the two-month period between the Palestinian elections and the Israeli elections (28 March) to help the Palestinians put their house in order because the more they do, the more it will have a favourable effect on what happens in the upcoming Israeli elections.

 

The less done, the more it will feed a strong unilateralist impulse on the Israeli side. Unilateralism produces outcomes and not solutions.

 

Hamas is running for the Palestinian Legislative elections and it looks set to win. And Likud could win the Israeli elections. Will it still be possible for a peace agreement to develop?

 

Likud in the past has taken steps. I negotiated the Hebron accord (Israeli redeployment from Hebron and handover of the city to Palestinian forces) with Likud [in 1997].

 

It's not like they can't do things. But Hamas will have to prove that it's committed to co-existence and not to an ongoing struggle.

 

I would say if you have an outcome where the right in each place wins, then the future is pretty grim.

 

Ehud Olmert is seen as a weak replacement to Ariel Sharon. Do you think he can lead Kadima to win the next Israeli general elections?

 

He has some built-in advantages because number one, he is the acting prime minister when there was a natural coalescence at this time. Number two; he really is Sharon's natural successor. He in many ways is the actual grandfather of disengagement as a principal and he was [ahead] of Sharon on the issue of disengagement. So he is the natural successor from that point of view.

 

Certainly he doesn't have Sharon's stature or built-in credibility on issues like security. What the security climate would look like will also strongly influence the elections.

 

If you look at the history of what affects Israeli elections, it's very much the climate, the level of violence or the absence of it. Now on the Palestinian side they have to decide what kind of treaty they want [with the Israelis]. 

 

With the old guard of political leaders out of the way and with new blood taking over, can the power of youth transform the region?

 

Bashar al-Assad [the Syrian president] has hardly proved to be progressive and he's young. So in Syria you don't have a leadership that seems progressive or able to make change in a positive direction.

 

Elsewhere you see younger leaders who seem more capable of trying to promote changes, certainly King Abdullah of Jordan and King Mohammed of Morocco and also Shaikh Maktum bin Rashid al-Maktum in Dubai.

 

There you see younger leaders more capable of trying to promote change. Change is never easy.

 

Look at the struggle between the young guard of Fatah and the old guard of Fatah. The old guard wants to preserve its power and privileges and has no interest in serving the Palestinian public. They are only interested in preserving their own positions. The young guard is much closer to the grassroots and understand the need for change but the old guard resist them every step of the way.

 

Then why doesn't the US support the young guard?

 

Well I would like to see the US support the young guard. I'd like to see much more done in terms of that. I think when we say we support change and democratisation and reform, we should be identifying more strongly with these kinds of figures everywhere. And that certainly should be the case with the young guard of Fatah.