Thursday, January 05, 2006


Put down your coffee and remove anything breakable from your desk, because you may experience spasms of astonished hilarity mixed with sadness as you read this, from the Associated Press:

PARIS (AP) - European leaders on Thursday fretted over the fate of Ariel Sharon, a man once seen in Europe as a danger for the Middle East but now viewed as a more complex, even crucial figure.

The concerns reflect a subtle shift in Europe - where there has been surprised admiration for Sharon's dismantling of settlements, satisfaction with the role now played by Europeans on the Gaza-Egypt border, and a growing wariness with the Islamic world.

``Ariel Sharon plays a particularly important role in the quest for lasting peace in the Middle East,'' Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said in a get-well message to the Israeli leader, who was in serious condition after a massive stroke. Austria holds the European Union's rotating presidency.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw praised Sharon as ``a towering figure not only in Israel but in the whole of the region.''

Speaking to reporters in Beirut after talks with his Lebanese counterpart Fawzi Salloukh, Straw said Sharon's attempts to find a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had ``earned him huge respect across the world.''
Such comments contrast sharply with the cautious, even hostile European attitude toward Sharon in the past. His history as a hard-line general and his role in Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led many to believe that when he became prime minister in 2001 he would hinder, not broker, peace.

``When Sharon was elected, Europeans saw him as an impediment to the peace process,'' said Richard Whitman, an analyst with Chatham House, a London think tank.

``But since then there's been a grudging acceptance that he has made a contribution, even if it has not been in the manner that Europeans expected. He has pursued his own peace process,'' Chatham said by telephone.
Sharon's stroke comes just as relations between Israel and Europe are at last picking up.

The latest boost came with November's deal to allow EU monitors along the Gaza-Egypt border, Europe's first security role in the region, despite years of lobbying.

The EU's role in the Middle East now hinges heavily on the patrol mission. EU officials insisted Thursday that the program was not under threat despite Sharon's illness.

Europe's experience with Islamic terrorism in recent years has also slightly shifted European sentiments toward the Middle East. Train bombings in Madrid in 2004 killed 191 people; suicide bombers killed 52 transit passengers in London last July.

``Europe has looked at terrorism differently since the attacks in London, even if the terrorism we're experiencing is fundamentally different from that in Israel,'' said Francois Gere, president of the French Institute for Strategic Analysis.

``We are not at the point where we would use the measures Israel does, but we understand them better,'' he said.

French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Sharon wishes for a speedy recovery.

Chirac said he hoped ``the courageous initiatives that Mr. Sharon embarked on - which were praised by the entire international community - will continue.''