2005: Sharon's new territory

After proving 2005 was a year of absolute domination, twice-elected PM is now seeking a third success.

sharonufr 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sharonufr 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In Israel, it was a year of absolute domination by Ariel Sharon - the champion of the summer's landmark, traumatic disengagement; the twice-elected prime minister now seeking a third success. Rocket fire across the border from a now Israel-free Gaza has meant that the debate over the efficacy of the pullout still rages, while many of those who were evacuated have yet to be rehoused. But the end of the year found Sharon, despite the scars of disengagement, in robust political health, having abandoned his own Likud party and established Kadima. Indeed, while the prime minister is able to direct his new political grouping much more completely than he could rule over an internally conflicted Likud, it is his physical wellbeing that casts one of the few shadows over his prospects for maintaining his national political authority. His mid-December stroke was a warning to an overweight, overworked leader. No matter how rapid his recovery, it has made Sharon's age and health a central election issue. And in Binyamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz, the Likud and Labor have two new leaders determined to redefine and revitalize their respective parties, and thwart Sharon's bid to become the only prime minister of modern times to prevail in three successive general elections. Israel's departure from Gaza, which many had hoped would galvanize the Palestinian Authority into asserting more concerted leadership and boosting its international credibility en route to statehood, in fact has seen a rise in support for Hamas at the PA's expense. Savvily focusing its efforts on local politics and social affairs, Hamas is soaring in Palestinian opinion polls, threatens to turn Gaza into "Hamastown" according to Israeli intelligence analysts and has triumphed in a series of local council elections. PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas's ruling Fatah party, for its part, was torn between its old and young guard, and only merged again when the prospect of defeat to Hamas in parliamentary elections scheduled for January became disconcertingly real. On other fronts, Israel has had to fight many sadly familiar battles. Despite a continued decline in "successful" suicide bombings, more than 50 Israeli civilians and soldiers were killed in bombings and other attacks in 2005 and almost 300 were wounded. The relative fall-off in terror victims underlined the terrible toll of those killed through our own indifference, incompetence and impatience on the roads: As December neared its end, more than 460 Israelis had died in the year's relentless roster of traffic accidents. Beyond our borders, war-torn Iraq held its first free election since the 1950s, the high turnout defying but not obscuring the daily landscape of violence, the debate over how to end it and the nature of the ongoing US role. In neighboring Iran, hard-line populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over as president and insisted on his country's right to develop a nuclear program. While Israel strives to present Iran's nuclear ambitions as a global problem, Ahmadinejad has thus far directly threatened only Israel, declaring that it should and can be "wiped off the map" and branding the Holocaust a "myth." Iran's nuclear ambitions also exacerbated worldwide concerns about nuclear proliferation, highlighted earlier in the year by North Korea's announcement that it now has nuclear weapons. In Lebanon, the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February intensified public disenchantment with the alleged culprits - the neighboring and domineering Syrians. Forced to withdraw its armed forces from its client state after 29 years, Syria is nonetheless reluctant to truly relinquish control. But Bashar Assad's hapless efforts to resist the Lebanese public's desire for independence - which saw a government ousted, unprecedentedly, by peaceful Arab people-power, in April - now places the stability of his own regime in question. The Iranian threat aside, Israeli analysts assert that the country's geostrategic position has never been better and that it has wider common interests in the region than ever before. Positive evidence of these common interests came with the announcement by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that they were calling off their direct economic boycott of Israel in order to join the World Trade Organization. Less positive proof came with wider regional terrorism - including July's suicide bombings at Egypt's Sharm e-Sheikh and November's blasts at three Amman hotels. July also saw four homegrown bombers devastate central London, in a synchronized series of attacks on buses and trains - the worst blasts in the UK since WWII. In October, there were bombings, too, in Bali, Indonesia, and New Delhi, India. Natural disasters also wreaked worldwide havoc. 2004 had ended with the tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 1.8 million in southeast Asia. August 2005 found the United States grappling with what has been called its biggest disaster since 9/11, Hurricane Katrina. Killing more than 1,300, the most deadly hurricane since 1928 left 80 percent of New Orleans underwater and caused an estimated $35 billion of damage. Three million people were left without electricity for weeks; thousands remain unaccounted for. YET THE year was not without its highpoints and moments of inspiration, not least in Israel. Over 3,000 North American Jews immigrated to Israel in 2005, a record-breaking figure due in part to the Nefesh B'nefesh organization, which brought its most recent planeload of 250 olim this week. Approximately two million tourists visited this year, a 30 percent surge on 2004 that exceeding the Tourism Ministry's expectations. In sports, the summer's Maccabiah games drew participants from 55 countries. Basketball fans were thrilled when Maccabi Tel Aviv was crowned European champion for the second year in a row, defeating TAU Vitoria. But "almost" was as close as it got for the national soccer team, narrowly unsuccessful in its bid to qualify for its first World Cup since 1970. Despite an undefeated campaign, the blue and white finished third in Group Four behind France and Switzerland. In the entertainment arena, Hana Laszlo won best actress at this year's Cannes Film Festival for her performance in the Israeli film Free Zone, which also featured Star Wars star (and determinedly understated Hebrew U. student) Natalie Portman. Israeli pop sensation Shiri Maimon placed fourth in the Eurovision song contest with Hasheket Shenishar. Jerusalemite Robert Aumann won the Nobel prize in economics for his research on game theory and conflict resolution. An emeritus professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University, Aumann is the second Israeli to receive the economics prize, which he shared with Thomas C. Schelling of the University of Maryland. At the end of yet another violent year, Aumann at least offered some hope of an approach that might ultimately yield a better reality. "Once we understand conflicts," he argued, "perhaps we can use some of these insights to try to resolve them... We take all the ills of the world - wars, strikes, racial discrimination - and dismiss them by calling them irrational. They are not necessarily irrational. Though it hurts, they may be rational. If war is rational, once we understand that it is, we can at least somehow address the problem... "We should start studying war, from all viewpoints, for its own sake. Try to understand what makes it happen. Pure, basic science. That may lead, eventually, to peace. The piecemeal, case-based approach has not worked too well up to now."