by Peter Hirschberg
(IPS) JERUSALEM -- For a full week, Israel's usually garrulous, confrontational politicians have been declaring on radio and TV that now is not the time to talk politics. Not while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is fighting for his life in a Jerusalem hospital after suffering a major brain hemorrhage.
Off the air, you can be sure, about all they are talking is politics. Beyond the human drama unfolding at Hadassah hospital where Sharon has yet to regain consciousness, the Prime Minister's illness is in essence a political story. Until the evening of Jan. 4, the opinion polls had been naggingly consistent, predicting a crushing victory for Sharon in national elections to be held Mar. 28.
The Prime Minister seemed invincible. Even the minor stroke he suffered Dec. 18 did not sow doubt amongst his supporters. Labor Party leader Amir Peretz and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu seemed mere props in a political game directed by Sharon.
But Sharon's exit from the political stage has thrown the race wide open. The election campaign, which Sharon seemed to have sewn up so early in the race, has started all over again.
The question now is whether the Kadima (Forward) party Sharon set up after leaving the Likud in November has a life of its own, withou. Kadima has been a one-man party: supporters have flocked to it because of Sharon's popularity, which has been especially high in the wake of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last August which he engineered.
No other leader in Israel ranks close to the 77-year-old ex-general in the popularity stakes. If for years Sharon was considered by many in Israel -- especially in the peace camp -- to be a dangerous political leader who had led the country into a futile war in Lebanon in the early 1980s and spearheaded the settlement program in the 1990s, the Gaza pullout radically altered his image.
Many traditional supporters of the center-left Labor Party, and many backers of his former center-right Likud party, were planning to vote for him.
With the collapse of the Camp David peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in mid-2000 and the subsequent eruption of the Intifadah uprising, Israelis concluded that it was not possible, for now at least, to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But they also concluded that it was no longer viable for Israel to continue ruling over 3.5 million Palestinians.
It was this sentiment that Sharon tapped so adeptly, and which explains the great popularity of his unilateral approach -- he pulled out of Gaza without negotiating Israel's departure with the Palestinians.
The man who has replaced Sharon as acting prime minister and as head of Kadima does not command the same appeal. Nor is he seen by the public as embodying the mix of skepticism, pragmatism and stubbornness that Israelis came to admire in Sharon.
So far, the opinion polls have been kind to Ehud Olmert, who spent most of his political life in the Likud before leaving with Sharon to set up Kadima. In fact, opinion surveys show the party holding firm -- on 40-plus seats in the 120-seat parliament -- despite Sharon's exit from the political arena.
But, with Israelis still closely monitoring the Prime Minister's medical condition, it is too early to assess the impact of the sympathy factor and the extent to which Sharon's magnetism will remain a key to support for the party.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line former prime minister who resigned from the treasury in protest over the Gaza pullout, has been trying to portray himself as Sharon's natural heir. He had earlier lambasted Sharon over his Gaza plan, at one point calling him a "tyrant."
Not surprisingly, Netanyahu's efforts have been met with widespread scorn. In a popular satirical TV show, one of the characters declares he is "the first recorded case in medical history of a man suffering memory loss brought on by another man's stroke."
Olmert can most credibly lay claim to the mantle of heir -- at least when it concerns the Ariel Sharon of recent years. When it comes to the unilateralist approach, one commentator wrote recently, Olmert is "more Sharon than Sharon."
Even before Sharon formally announced his plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in early 2004, Olmert had already outlined the contours of such a plan in newspaper interviews. "In the absence of a negotiated agreement -- and I do not believe in the realistic prospect of an agreement -- we need to implement a unilateral alternative," he said in an interview in late 2003 that foreshadowed Sharon's plan for Gaza.
Both Netanyahu and Labor leader Amir Peretz would have been hoping that with Sharon no longer at the helm, Kadima would begin to splinter and that they would be able to win back some of the big-name lawmakers who deserted them to join the new party. That has not happened. Olmert has managed to keep the party together, in part by promising the number two spot to Labor veteran Shimon Peres, who left his long-time party to back Sharon.
While Kadima remains the clear frontrunner in opinion polls conducted since Sharon suffered his massive stroke, Labor and Likud have continued to flounder, getting 18 and 14 seats respectively. But there is still more than two months to election day, and as Shimon Peres has often cautioned -- as a result of his many electoral defeats despite rosy opinion surveys -- polls are like perfume, nice to smell but dangerous to drink.
If, however, Olmert can convince the Israeli public that Sharon is not the only leader capable of unilaterally disengaging from the Palestinians, those opinion polls will continue to radiate a very pleasant fragrance for Kadima.
January 13, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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