(Clarifies reference to territories in 23rd paragraph)
(CNSNews.com Analysis) - A promise by Ariel Sharon that he will unveil a peace plan acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians if he is elected prime minister of Israel was greeted with muted skepticism by Washington analysts, who said the road to peace could be especially difficult for the former hawkish general.
"Sharon's 'secret plan' calls to mind Richard Nixon's 'secret plan' to end the Vietnam war when he was running for election in 1972," said Thomas Smerling, director of the Israel policy center at the Israel Policy Forum, a Washington lobby that seeks to promote the peace process.
Nixon's plan resulted in the escalation of the war, Smerling said, adding, "the history of secret plans to end wars is not a promising one."
Sharon, 72, the Likud Party candidate, currently is leading Prime Minister Ehud Barak by as much as 20 percent in some opinion polls. The race is expected to tighten, however. Because the Feb. 6 election is a special election for the prime minister's position only and not for the Knesset, turnout is unpredictable, analysts say.
Groups that vote more for political parties than for prime minister - including Arab Israelis, the ultra-religious, and newly arrived Russians in Israel who tend to vote for Russian parties - may not even cast a vote, they say.
"The Arab citizens of Israel are a particular question mark because right now the vast majority are saying they're not going to vote for either candidate," Smerling said. "No one can predict whether their rage at Barak for police violence in the riots of a few months ago will be overcome by rational self-interest.
"But there are some voices in the Arab community saying for the first time 'we're shooting ourselves in the foot'" by not participating in the political process, he said.
In the Middle East, "there's a high probability of low probability events. That seems a paradox, but there are so many variables that can dramatically change situations at short notice, which makes prediction extremely difficult," Smerling said.
But fears that the advent of a hard-liner as prime minister could engulf the region in a broader conflict are exaggerated, analysts say. Sharon's views on Arab-Israeli peace are consistent with those of his Likud colleagues, who maintain the Arab world is largely undemocratic and therefore not ready for peace. Until there's a transformation among Arab states, Israel has to hold on and hunker down, they argue.
A Sharon peace plan could call for a unilateral disengagement from some of the occupied territories, analysts say. Under this scenario, Israel would simply withdraw to a new line without negotiating with the Palestinians.
"The problem with unilateral actions is they virtually guarantee continued hostility and possibly an escalation of hostility. With all such schemes, the devil lies in the details. Once it's actually spelled out, it's not nearly so simple," Smerling said.
Sharon is still a controversial figure in the eyes of most Arab states, and his election could lead to a breaking off of diplomatic relations between Israel and friendly states such as Jordan and Egypt.
In 1982, Sharon masterminded Israel's controversial invasion of Lebanon, and his failure to prevent the subsequent massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Christian militiamen allied with Israel at refugee camps outside Beirut have led to calls by Arabs for his prosecution as a war criminal.
Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September was seen by Arabs as a provocation and triggered the past three months of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.
"Sharon is an activist," Smerling said. "He always takes the initiative. He's always on the offensive, whether it was crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 or designing the Lebanon war in 1982, or forming a strategic plan for building settlements. So my guess is he'll do something if he's elected, but nobody knows what.
"It's possible but unlikely for someone at this stage of his career to make a dramatic departure from his entire biography. In all likelihood Sharon will continue to be an activist who will take some bold initiatives. But he will have more faith in the use of military force and less faith in the possibilities of diplomacy, and will continue to be an extremely controversial figure," he said.
Leon T. Haddar, a research fellow with the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, said Sharon initially will probably try to form a national unity government and seek to modify concern about his hawkish image by appointing Labor people to his Cabinet.
"But based on his latest addresses and statements, I don't see any surprises in store," Haddar said.
In the past few weeks, Sharon has tried to cast himself as a peace supporter while advocating Israeli sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem, retention of all settlements and no acceptance of any Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem - all of which Barak has indicated he is willing to compromise on.
"If the Palestinians will not accept what Barak is proposing, why would they accept a Sharon plan?" Haddar said.
But Haddar said Israeli support for Sharon had more to do with disappointment in Barak than endorsement of Sharon's hawkish positions.
"The polls show that if Shimon Peres runs against Sharon he'd have a better chance of winning than Barak. People are not rejecting Barak because of an ideological orientation, but because they see him as a failure. People lost faith in him not because of concessions he made, but by the way he managed all this," Haddar said.
A majority of Israelis still support some form of Palestinian state, withdrawal from the disputed territories and the removal of settlements, Haddar said. "So if Sharon pursues policies that are contrary to Israeli public opinion and does not deliver the goods he promised, he'll be kicked out of power as well."
The Jordanian Option
One peace scenario could involve a possible return to "the Jordanian option" by the United States and Israel, Haddar suggested.
"For years U.S. and Israeli policy was based on the assumption that Israel was going to return the West Bank to Jordan in exchange for peace with Jordan. The PLO emerged as the only player after the Madrid peace conference and certainly after Oslo, and I think with the current level of frustration - both in Israel and in Washington - with the inability of Yasser Arafat to maintain control over his people, there might be a tendency to consider bringing Jordan back as far as a solution to the West Bank and Gaza is concerned."
It would be easier for Israel to reach an agreement on the West Bank with Jordan. "The Jordanian-Palestinian consideration also would allow a place to absorb the Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and other places."
Robert Maginnis, director of national security and foreign affairs with the Family Research Council, said Sharon's election could prompt oil-producing Arab countries to use oil to pressure the United States to become more involved in the region, even though the United States is "already paying a great deal of toll over there."
Long-term failure to reach a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians also could strain U.S.-Israeli relations, Maginnis said.
"You clearly have a large Jewish community and a large Christian community which are very supportive of Israel, but now you have a growing Muslim community and human rights groups that are critical of U.S. support for Israel," he said.
This Middle East issue was confused because "a lot of people don't have an understanding of the history of the area, and they come to conclusions that this situation is comparable to that of the American Indians. It's not at all like that and yet it is confused in the debate," he said.